Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sacrifice

Sometimes, the common (though rarely overtly stated) thread running through much of what Academic Support professionals do is a critique of law school pedagogy and the legal profession itself, because of the tremendous demands it places on time, family, and life in general.

Dennis Tonsing’s writings remind students of the need for both conscientious, active planning of their time and balance in their lives. But perhaps what we all need to focus on more is an acceptance of the reality of the practice of law. We all recognize it, certainly.

Dennis and I, as members of the legal academe who have also spent considerable time in private practice, certainly caution students that, to be a professional practitioner of law, you must begin the practice of law as law students from the first day of law school. But we all seem to avoid a word that encompasses what we all know is necessary, but are afraid to voice, because it has a pejorative connotation in today’s society: sacrifice.

The professional practice of law requires sacrifice: sacrifice primarily of time, but also of other needs, wants, and desires. As lawyers, we, and our students, cannot talk freely about our clients and cases—there is a duty of confidentiality—so we must sacrifice some predilection toward gossip. As lawyers, we have limits placed on us with regard to trial publicity, so, despite the way some celebrity lawyers seem to behave, we must sacrifice a natural penchant for the spotlight. As lawyers, we must be willing to represent unpopular people and unpopular groups, so we must sacrifice the natural desire for approval of our actions. As lawyers, we must be willing to provide services pro bono, and often to forego seeking payment even when a client who can pay refuses to do so, so we must sacrifice financially. But above all, as I noted in the beginning of this paragraph, we must sacrifice time.

We must learn to say no to people we love, and situations that are more tempting and more enjoyable than sitting in a cubicle or at a desk writing a memorandum or a brief, or doing research. Modern American society eschews the need for this kind of sacrifice. Certainly, when disaster strikes, we are all willing to reach into our wallets to contribute. But how many of us are willing to spend a week or two building houses for those who lost their homes to a hurricane, as one of our recent graduates did? Too often, modern society suggests we live for the moment, seek out whatever is pleasant and pleasurable, and shun that which requires sacrifice.

So, when we try to communicate how law school is not school—as Dennis points out in his book—we still do not say, “Law school is not school in part because you have to sacrifice. It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice of time to exercise the mental muscle needed to self-learn.” It seems as if the word, “sacrifice,” has become a dirty word.

Sacrifice is not a dirty word. The founders of this nation sacrificed. A number of generations of Americans have sacrificed far more than time to preserve the freedoms represented by the very legal system our students seek to enter. I know this sounds controversial. I know it may sound insensitive to students’ needs and pressures. But it is also realistic. We aren’t going to change the nature of the profession to make it more “lawyer-friendly.” Clients are not going to care that the lawyer has to miss a loved one’s birthday party.

Dennis himself uses a vignette of a lawyer who arrives unprepared for court because he was celebrating his wedding anniversary. Our students rely on us to prepare them for this oft-times unforgiving and difficult profession. But preparation is more than learning to read and brief cases. Preparation is more than learning how to take active notes and make good course summaries. Preparation is more than taking a number of practice exams. Preparation is committing to sacrifice—both now, and in the professional practice of law.

Shouldn’t we be honest with our students and use the word we all know we mean—sacrifice, and tell them that we, and their future clients, expect it of them as much as we expect it of ourselves? (Mario Mainero)

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