Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Act I, Scene I
It was the era of back-to-the-land, and I was not immune to the lure of the times. After years of practicing public history, I decided to take a new direction by moving to a cabin in the woods, living a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, and picking up odd jobs to pay for my groceries and chainsaw.
Eager to establish ties in my new community, I was thrilled to accept a dinner invitation from my college's regional alumni association. Shedding my sawdust-covered jeans for a dark suit, I joined fellow alumni (mostly doctors and lawyers, as it turned out) to reminisce about professors, teams, Winter Carnival, and dormitory pranks. I felt at home at the swank gathering until a 40-ish lawyer asked, "And what do you do?" Happy to share my journey, I replied, "Right now I'm working as a janitor to . . . ." My sentence died in my mouth as the lawyer turned away, along with everyone else within earshot, as though my lowly position tainted me irreparably.
Act I, Scene II
Ten years later, when I worked temp jobs at a university between fire seasons, everyone in the Plant Sciences department gushed about their custodian. She was the consummate professional, efficiently finishing her long list of assigned duties before the end of each shift. With the remainder of her time, she talked with students, staff, and faculty about how she could help them improve their work spaces, and she worked on these extra projects as time allowed. The laboratories, offices, and hallways gleamed under her care. She befriended anxious freshmen, guided befuddled visitors, and shared good cheer with all. When she was reassigned to a different building on campus, the entire department mourned her departure and turned out to wish her bon voyage.
As a freshly-minted academic support professional, I noticed a curious phenomenon. During fall semester, when 1Ls were nervous about their ability to master the demands of law school, they were, by and large, respectful to those they encountered during the course of the day. But a few weeks into second semester, with grades out and the confidence of actually becoming future lawyers, behaviors began to change for a significant portion of the class. While full professors were treated with deference, instructor-level faculty received lesser courtesy and staff were sometimes addressed with a brusqueness that crossed the line to rudeness. The cleanliness of the building suffered: restrooms were littered with paper towels thoughtlessly tossed, spills remained on floors, and dishes piled up in lounge areas, as if it was the duty of the custodians to serve as vassals to self-important students who were superior to them.
The Moral of the Story
"Every calling is great when greatly pursued," declared Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The beginning of the second semester, when grades are released, is a particularly critical time for students. Most gain the confidence that they will become lawyers. Others bravely face the reality that they should contemplate a different future, either because law does not feed their soul, or because legal reasoning is such a struggle that it is better to pursue a different vocation. Whatever their path, every person involved in legal education needs to remember that it is not financial success, or academic degrees, or career status that defines a professional. Rather, it is respectfully and ethically using one's talents in the service of others, whether in the courtroom or as the janitor. Professionalism always involves treating others with the respect that acknowledges their inherent dignity and value. As we help our students take the lessons they need to from what they have been through, and to prepare for the tasks they lie ahead of them, an important part of our task as gatekeepers is to remind our students of the dignity of every person and the greatness of every calling.