corruption: the legal profession’s crisis of meaning

How are we to avoid those in office becoming deeply corrupt when everything is devoid of meaning?

Kafka, Der Process (also known as The Trial)

Larry Lessig’s commencement address to the Marshall Law School graduating class addressed the topic of corruption.  Not just the obvious, capital C Corruption of undue influence but the more subtle of corruption of a profession that has lost touch with a large part of what it means to be lawyer.

Instead my point is to emphasize the importance of the other part of law. Not the “Inc.” part, but the people part. The person part. Or the real person part. The part that touches real people. With real problems.

The part that keeps a family in their home against an unjust demand for eviction. Or that enforces a simple contract with a bank, to supply the credit for a coffee shop. Or that protects a woman against her abusive husband. Or that forces an insurance company to pay on a claim they rightly owe. Or that defends a child in a foster home against the neglect of a distracted state.

This too is law. The law of Erin Brockovich, not the law of Cravath Swaine and Moore.

But here’s the thing about this law:

No one thinks it works well.

There are plenty of lawyers in “Inc. Law” who go home at the end of the day and feel that that system works. Their clients got the process they were due. Their arguments were heard. Their interests were fairly considered. If through litigation, litigation in a federal court: With great judges. Beautiful carpet. Clean bathrooms. If through a transaction, a deal cut in conference rooms at the Four Seasons. No doubt these lawyers work hard. Insanely hard. And the system rewards them with the sense that the system works.

Not so with the law of real people. There is no one in the criminal justice system who believes that system works well. There is no one in housing law who believes this is what law was meant to be. In contracts, you read about disputes involving tens, maybe a hundred dollars. The disputes of ordinary people. These disputes are not for the courts any more. Or if they are, they are for courts that are an embarrassment to the ideals of justice from our tradition.

The law of real people doesn’t work, even if the law of corporations does.

This is a natural consequence if lawyers are viewed as hired guns, or a mere legal technicians, rather than as agents of justice.   Legal ethics is largely about how lawyers fulfill the role of agents of justice in a capitalist society.   Ethics is inseparable from ethos; when no one is quite sure what the meaning of our work is, our system and all the participants in it are corrupted.  Recognizing that corruption in ourselves is the first step toward changing it.

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