A Quote for Recent Law Graduates
One of my favorite insights about practicing law came not from a lawyer, but the Irish poet Oscar Wilde. He said:
"The study of law is sublime, its practice, vulgar."
I’m not sure I like the quote for the message Oscar Wilde intended to convey, but it rings true to me on several levels. At first glance, the statement seems to express a cynical viewpoint – that our laws purport to protect divine aspects of humanity but ultimately fail to effectuate justice in practice. I think the message is better utilized as a source of encouragement for new attorneys.
In law school, students devote hundreds of hours to studying the U.S. Constitution and the histories of the common law and criminal justice system. Every law student learns Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright, and other cases that define fundamental American law. These Supreme Court decisions are replete with high-minded ideals about equal justice, individual sovereignty, and the goals of civil society.
It’s true that understanding the fundamental ideals underlying American law is critical to advocating effectively in practice. However, most lawyers rarely get the opportunity to engage in the “big questions” after graduation. Moreover, a significant portion of a litigator’s day-to-day involves either administrative tasks or combatting obstacles from one’s adversary. We’re often concerned with tactics, not debating what the law means.
For instance, trial lawyers must ensure that legal filings are meticulously prepared, that the adversary is forthright in discovery, and that opportunities for tactical advantage are effectively contested. These responsibilities can be tedious and time-consuming, but they are a staple of every litigator’s practice. This gap between expectation and reality can cause a lot of young attorneys to become disillusioned with practicing law. No one told them how much of the profession consists of the “vulgar” jockeying for position.
To me, the Oscar Wilde quote is equal parts dose of reality and a call for persistence. Yes, the law may be unfair. Your opponent’s tactics may be unfair. You will be forced at times to wallow in the minutiae to represent your client. But your unique role, as a licensed advocate, is to push through those challenges in search of the most just result – to achieve the ideal for your client.
So, to recent graduates, I hope you engage in your first year of practice with patience and grit. Litigating and law school are nothing alike. But the better you’re able to overcome the vulgar details of practice, the bigger difference you can make in the lives of real people.