There’s a poem I stumbled upon a few years ago called, I am the Lawyer that describes the values attorneys uphold and the virtue we strive for; my favorite line is:
I am the conservative of the past, the liberal of the present, and the radical of the future.
That line is so striking to me because it is so true (and btw this was written at least 50 years ago, so the ideals the author attaches to those terms aren’t as politicized as they are now, imo). Rather, what I think the author meant was that attorneys push for progress, but also uphold the law, which creates a dichotomy within the profession. The legal bastions from decades ago seem conservative to us, and the attorneys of tomorrow will push for change and progress that will seem like radical ideas. Whenever I read this poem, I always pause to think—how am I adhering to this notion that we can create radical improvements and change? In the heat of protests all over the U.S., important cases in front of SCOTUS, and a looming presidential election—how are you using your law degree for the better?
Attorneys are more often than not the guiding force (though usually not the face) behind movements that eventually become law. And while I am supportive of protests and groups of people speaking truth to power (because the government should often see and hear the complaints of the people), I also know that for actual change to happen laws have to be created because that’s just how our country works. We all know law degrees are our key to creating real legislative change, but it can be difficult to get involved with “big” cases, and we can be overwhelmed and easily discourage at the thought of battling some legal Goliath.
Yet for those of us that want to be radicals or conservatives (hey, the status quo needs lawyers too) the roadmap is in front of us. It’s piecemeal legislation. It’s finding some “small” inequity and growing from there. When we look at careers like Evan Wolfson who may be at the zenith of his career; or Justice Thurgood Marshall, or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; we can notice that constant theme. We wouldn’t be contemplating Obergefell v. Hodges without all the legal groundwork laid by Wolfson and others like him. There would be no Brown vs. Board without Thurgood first litigating Murray v. Pearson. And the catalyst for Justice Ginsburg’s “radical” litigation career began with a social security case that pushed back against gender norms.
It seems that in order to push for improvements and use our education to advance our community the question we should apply to our careers is: What issue am I so passionate about and impacts my community so much that I’d be willing to fight for it to be legally changed? Once you figure out your subject the next step is figuring out where and how you can start working on impactful litigation–understanding that “impactful” will likely be just one small chip at the problem.
While it’s not always possible to jump into the fray immediately (though that may be the case for some); we should strive to keep the big picture in mind and plan ways to participate as much as we can. A mistake we make is to think that as young attorneys we’re not able to take on cases that make a big difference. However, looking at legal history shows us that huge inequalities crumble only when the smaller bricks forming their foundation are dismantled. This should be the fuel we need to get involved in those smaller level cases. Our goal as attorneys should be to find both big and small ways to participate in creating change that we feel would best improve our lives and lives of others.
Of course not everyone wants to or can work in public interest or in policy, but that doesn’t mean you’re unable to advocate for progress. The value of pro bono work is immeasurable and my hope is that we all have some pet cause, some injustice that we can’t stand, and that we are moved to do whatever we can with our degree to make that change happen.