An open letter to Law Schools across the nation:
I don’t know if you are aware of an incident which took place recently involving a student currently attending a School of Law, but I thought I should bring it to your attention. Failing to address this issue could have potentially long-term implications in the public’s opinion regarding the quality of not only the education that your schools provide, but also the quality of the attorneys that you graduate and subsequently send out into the world to practice law.
Last weekend, there was a protest in New York City. There is no law against any citizen attending any protest, as long as they remain courteous and respectful and do not cause any damage to people or property. That is, of course, the beauty of living in this great nation – our ability to express our opinions with each other and those in positions of authority when we disagree.
One young gentleman made a point of putting himself in front of a video camera, which is perfectly legal; people do that every day. He told everyone his name, and he stated that he is currently a law student at a fairly prestigious law school – no problem there. At all times, this young man conducted himself in such a way that he did not break the letter of the law.
He then proceeded to make a great show of telling anyone who would listen – and since this performance eventually made its way not only to YouTube and Internet blogs, but also to MSNBC and the “Rachel Maddow Show”, anyone who cared to watch – a tale of how a Wall Street bank had taken his parents’ home from them. This was purportedly the “reason” for him attending this protest in the first place.
There’s just one problem.
This young man’s parents haven’t lost their home – a piece of information that was easily available to anyone who wanted to find out more about this heart-wrenching tale of woe. Not only have this young man’s parents not lost their home, they currently owe less on it than a year’s tuition at this particular law school, and it appears as if they are in the process of currently looking to sell that home and move to another one in a different neighborhood.
In other words, this young man – who is studying to be a lawyer – TOLD A LIE.
This young man did nothing violent while he was at this protest; in fact, he was the picture of decorum and restraint and conducted himself quite courteously throughout this incident. (It should be also be noted that the fine officers of the NYPD were ALSO the picture of decorum and restraint and conducted themselve quite admirably.)
Unfortunately, this young man went out of his way to break the Code of HONOR which most people in this country recognize as the fabric which holds not only our legal system, but society at large, together. While his only crime was public disruption, I believe that you will find that most people in this country have a real problem with someone who goes out of their way to tell a lie; they find it unconscionable in a lawyer.
I am not a lawyer, but I AM a citizen of these United States. I was raised to believe that the legal profession was a noble profession, and that all of the people who completed all of the requirements to become a lawyer were of the finest moral character, and had gone into the profession to uphold the laws of this land.
I was raised to believe that justice was being carried out by people who lived by the highest possible code of self-discipline and ethics; that the men and women who went on to protect their fellow man against “wrong” held themselves and their colleagues to an extraordinarily high standard of personal conduct.
I would still like to believe that.
I would still like to believe that law schools are teaching their students that they must tell the TRUTH at all times; that they are not allowed to bend the truth to suit their purposes, even if it means that they might lose a case.
I would still like to believe that law schools are teaching their students that they must ensure that their colleagues are ALSO telling the truth at all times, and that if they find a colleague who is not following the high standards of the profession that they are obligated to speak up, and not allow that to continue for the good of the profession and of the public.
It is getting to the point in this country that more and more people are viewing the judicial system with a high level of mistrust. It doesn’t matter how many truly upstanding people there may be in your profession – if just a few are seen to be liars and cheats, then it starts to call into question the integrity and character of ALL of those who are in the profession.
When the public sees a law STUDENT – someone who hasn’t even graduated from Law School – telling a lie, it calls the entire legal education system, fairly or unfairly, into question.
People start to wonder if they can trust ANY attorney who graduates from a Law School if one (or more) of their students demonstrates that he or she is willing to lie to have their voice heard. What that tells people is that the person in question does not care about telling the truth, and that person does not care about DEFENDING the truth, and in the eyes of the public that also means that the person in question is willing to lie for their clients as well.
We have a Congress – that body of government that writes the rules that govern the people – that is primarily composed of people with Law degrees.
Our Judicial branch – the body of government that ensures that the law of the land is applied honestly and fairly to all, and which is the public’s last form of redress against a government that is overstepping its enumerated powers – is comprised ONLY of people with law degrees.
In this day and age of instant information, an awful lot of law-abiding citizens are seeing an awful lot of people in the highest levels of government who not only seem unwilling to uphold the law, they seem to hold themselves ABOVE the law. In fact, these people sometimes appear to take great delight in breaking the law, and daring the public to try and do something about it.
Frankly, that doesn’t speak well of your profession. And that opinion – like it or not – extends to the very people who are in charge of EDUCATING these people. The public starts to wonder just what it is that law students are being taught, what standards they are held to, and just who is going to end up looking out for the public at large in the not-too-distant future.
And they start to think that maybe all of these “fine” institutions aren’t so “fine” after all.
Once that starts happening, these schools start to get a bad reputation. People don’t feel like they can trust lawyers who are graduating from these “fine” institutions, because they see the caliber of people who are coming out of them. They quit hiring graduates of these schools to do legal work for them. A school will start to get a bad name, and people who want to go into the profession and come out with a sterling reputation will stop applying for admission to what was formerly regarded as a “fine” institution.
Pretty soon, there aren’t enough students to pay for all of the professors at these “fine” institutions, and they start to lose their jobs. These professors find that other law schools aren’t willing to hire them, because they can’t trust the caliber of the instructors at that school, and they don’t want that reputation to sully their school’s reputation as well.
People hear that a person graduated from one of these schools, and they think that they must not be a very good lawyer, because that school no longer has that “fine” reputation.
Once you have lost the public’s trust, it is hard – if not impossible – to regain it.
I do not know the young man in question, and because I do not want to cause him irreparable damage, I have not mentioned his name – if you are curious, you can find the video here and more about the story here.
I understand that youthful passion oftentimes overtakes common sense when fighting for what a person believes is a “worthy” cause. While I do not personally agree with the opinions of the people who are holding this protest, I respect that they feel strongly about the issue in question.
As long as they don’t break the law, they enjoy the protections of the law to express their opinions. However, if they DO break the law, the public must see that the law is being upheld; otherwise, their trust in the law – and by extension, the legal profession – starts to erode.
It is important to stress to all young people who plan on entering the legal profession that a deep understanding of what is a lie and what is the truth – and a willingness to always tell the truth, most especially when it would be easier to lie – will go a very long way toward ensuring that they are held in high regard both personally and professionally throughout their lifetime.
At this point in time, the public’s regard for many in the legal profession is very low, indeed – and with good reason. We feel like we have seen our trust betrayed by the very people who have sworn to uphold that trust.
Most people in this country do the right thing every single day, but when they see a legal system that doesn’t – in fact, which sometimes appears to go out of its way to reward people who break the law – they lose their faith in the whole system.
That system starts with the professors who impart their knowledge and values to these students and with the administrators who send them out, diploma in hand, into the world with the blessing (and reputation) of their institutions.
Please remember that.