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Archive for Wednesday, November 4, 1998

LAW NOT JUST ABOUT MONEY

November 4, 1998

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I recently read a new book by a young lawyer recounting his life at a large New York City law firm. It is supposed to be a cautionary tale. The young lawyer, fresh from Harvard Law School (which he attended after getting a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop), forsook his plans for public interest or government law practice for the life of an associate in a large, high-paying Wall Street firm.

The book is intended to show the reader how terrible such a life is. The young lawyer is immediately thrown into the thick of things and quickly discovers that his superiors do not wish to be his friends or mentors. Instead their sole desire is to see how many billable hours they can get out of him. He soon realizes that the more he works, the more money the partners in the firm will make.

He tells of spending hundreds of hours doing menial tasks like sorting through files. He talks of having to fly to uninteresting cities like Detroit where you can't even get a good dinner no matter how much you pay. And, horrors to tell, he even has to fly coach because no business class seats are available and the firm won't pay for first class.

His love life suffers as well; he spends so much time at the office that he rarely sees his girlfriend. In the end, two hundred pages later, he makes a brave decision: he leaves his firm and becomes a lawyer for a large corporation which is willing to pay him almost as much money as his law firm but lets him go home at 6:30 p.m. No doubt the young lawyer wrote this tome expecting it to be picked up by Hollywood and made into a film in which his role would be played by someone like Alec Baldwin.

As is probably obvious, I didn't come away from this book feeling any great sympathy for the author. Indeed, my major feeling was revulsion followed by a certain degree of fear that some of the students I teach might be of this mindset. This young man lost his way sometime while he was in law school. He exchanged his dreams of living a good life for living the good life. I would have felt better if the author had owned up to his choices or had given up corporate practice for a practice less oriented to making a buck and more inclined to doing some good.

This year will be my 20th year as a lawyer and my 18th year as a law teacher. I became a lawyer because I believed in the power of the law to do good. I became a law teacher and a law administrator because I wanted to teach young people to be good lawyers, good in terms of their professional skills and good in terms of the choices they make as human beings. I have nothing against making money or corporate practice. I am not a radical who fights the system. But I long ago realized that a life dedicated simply to seeing how much money and power one could acquire was a life I did not want and did not admire. When I meet my maker and am asked what I have accomplished, I don't want to have only a bank balance to show for my time on this earth.

I worry a great deal that our society and the financial pressures so many students face push them to elevate money above all things. Life is about more than flying first class or eating in some expensive restaurant. It is about doing good things for other people and living a good life. The law is a very powerful tool and those who are trained in its technicalities and procedures have great power and privilege. It is, I think, a public trust given to each of us, and one which we must as individuals continue to earn.

In the Middle Ages, knowledge of the law was referred to as a gift of God, scientia iuris donum dei est. The medievals believed it was something to be cherished and used for good not evil and not solely for personal gain. The young lawyer/author of this new book has missed all this. And his life will be impoverished unless he acquires a bit more wisdom about his profession and about his life.

As many of you know, I have recently decided to step down as dean of the Kansas University School of Law and to resume my career as a teacher. This has been the impetus for me to do a good bit of soul searching and to ask myself whether I still believe in the law as a noble professional and one worthy of spending my life in teaching. Happily for me, I still believe in all of the good things about law and the legal profession. I still believe that most lawyers have ideals and live their lives not for themselves alone, but for others. And, therefore, I still want to teach people how to be lawyers.

The book I just read depresses me a bit for the lost soul of its author, but it also reinforces my belief in the importance of teaching the next generation the good things about the law and being a lawyer. So I will, indeed, continue to be a law teacher, because that is something I can do and which I think is worth doing. When I teach, I will venture to tell my students that the purpose of legal education is not to find the good life, but rather to find a way to lead a good life.

-- Mike Hoeflich is dean of the Kansas University School of Law.

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