I always get asked, “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” Without fail, every time I get asked that question, I’m thrown into a whirlwind of crisis and uncertainty because I’ve never had a satisfactory answer. The gratification I feel when reading cases and statutes and drafting motions sounds really weird and is a feeling that I can’t articulate or justify. My default is always: because I love argumentative writing and logic and I felt that studying law would be a good fit for me.
My understanding of lawyering didn’t come from watching the sensationalized trials on Law and Order or How to Get Away with Murder. In fact, I fell in love with what others might consider boring aspects of being an attorney – researching country conditions, reading case notes, filling out paperwork, writing letters – because even the most humdrum activities produce results. Client A’s landlord filed a retaliatory eviction complaint against her, forcing her to move out of her home and find a new place to live within an unreasonably short amount of time, but her anxiety was ameliorated by our phone call, informing her that she has our support and representation, that she’s not alone in this fight. Client B lives in a mobile home in a mobile home park that is shutting down after being sold to developers. Yes, we can’t do much about gentrification, but we can try to negotiate a better deal so that he has more financial support when he’s trying to find a new home in a city where the costs of rent and standard of living is rapidly increasing. Yes, $7,000 is not enough for relocation, but it’s much more than the legally required amount and it’s the best we can do.
When my LSGM supervisor asked me why I wanted to become a lawyer during our introductory meeting, I told her that I wanted power. Lawyers are equipped with one of the most important tools in settling disputes and helping those under attack: knowledge of the legal system and how to work within it. At the same time, lawyers are almost powerless in effectuating larger, systemic changes. The boundaries have been set. The rules are in place. For example, for individuals who are not protected as well under the law, legal aid is bounded by the discrimination codified into law or by the people whose discretionary power is adulterated by implicit or explicit biases. Take, for instance, the well known statistic that even though white people use drugs at the same rate, black people are far more likely to be arrested for nonviolent drug crimes, mostly due to the disparate treatment of minorities that results from too much police discretion. Lawyers can help represent the convicted but cannot do much to reform the larger criminal justice system. We can attempt to fix every defective product that is churned out by the machine, but at some point, we’re going to have to focus our attention on fixing the machine itself.
I think it’s important to identify and acknowledge these limitations because generally, it’s important to understand what limitations prevent you from achieving a goal. In order words, identifying limitations can often lead to creative circumvention. I recently learned about different models of lawyering; more specifically, my supervisor introduced us to the concept of community lawyering, which is legal support and representation for community initiatives and empowerment. According to Purvi and Chuck from the Community Justice Program, the underlying philosophy of this model of lawyering is that the “poverty of clients is simply a symptom of the larger disease of systemic oppression and conscious inequality.” It’s exciting to learn how lawyers can creatively produce alternative methods of contributing to social movements, and I’ll be sure to keep that in mind in law school.