The role of the citizen, Esq.
I have spent the last three years of my life submerged in law. I have read thousands of pages of cases and statues. I have given up many hours of leisure and sleep to write, research and prepare papers. I have listened to more than 58,000 minutes of instruction. I have been fortunate; I have had inspiring professors and dedicated study partners. I have learned a lot (whether I have learned enough is a question for the bar examiners.). But, after three years of focus on the nuts and bolts, it is easy to forget that the goal is to build something. As my classmates and I begin this chapter of our lives, I would like to take a second to reflect on what exactly we have gotten ourselves into.
We are beginning our careers at an interesting time in history. The recession began as we were taking the LSAT and enrolling in law school. As we studied our first-year classes, news articles about dismal employment statistics served as reminders of our growing student loan debt. Citizens United, Wikileaks and the BP oil spill broke us into our second year with issues concerning political influence, American use of torture and the role of regulatory agencies. Our final year of law school has been characterized by global discontent and the rise of civic action. The Occupy Wall Street protestors provided us with interesting class topics of free speech, public zoning and injunctive relief. The local response to Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 raised questions of labor law and the legislative process. Although citizens with different politics view the problems differently, Americans seem to be reaching a simultaneous conclusion: something is wrong with the system.
I have a confession. Aside from dutifully voting and filing my tax return, I have been a pretty lousy citizen while in law school. I am quick to remember my rights, but my civic responsibilities are often an afterthought. I try to stay informed about the world, but in the face of obvious systemic problems, my response is meager. I go to the effort of clicking an “influence your congressperson!” button if I receive a compelling email and I am not particularly busy. I justify my inaction in the same way that most people do; I am busy and I doubt the influence of email campaigns. There are rarely immediate consequences for neglecting our civic duties, but over time it undermines the structure of our system. We live in a democracy; we are not given our government, we build it ourselves.
As citizens with law degrees, we have put ourselves in a unique position. We believe in the rule of law, and we know rights mean nothing unless they can be remedied. We must not abdicate our responsibility to deal with our nation’s problems to other professions or corporations.
Our law training has prepared us for more than the narrow practice areas that we will likely choose as careers. Although we will likely be surrounded by thousands of lawyers throughout our professional careers, we must not forget that we are among a tiny percentage of the American population. If we come across a law that is unjust, we have the unique skill set to articulate why it is unjust and to propose a solution. Connecting with our fellow citizens easier and cheaper than ever before; we must use our training to distill the important bits and make systemic problems compelling and understood by all. We have learned to articulate interests in the language of issues and policies; we must now learn to listen to what people with different backgrounds are saying. We have a duty to help others be understood, and to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
We do not have to alter our career paths to be good citizens; we must only have the courage to occasionally use our training outside of our narrow practice areas. If we fail to fix the system, we will be doomed to spend our careers fighting a toxic political atmosphere where the legitimacy of the law is undermined. We need America to actually be the country that we believe it is. Even if we did not break the system, as citizens and lawyers we have a duty to help fix it.
By Kate Sheets, OSBA law school liaison for the University of Akron Law School.