It might be the nature of the field, or maybe just the nature of the curriculum, but studying law feels completely impersonal. Names are fixed to the top of each case, but between the courtroom and the casebook, the editors manage to strip the case clean of every scrap of humanity, leaving nothing more than the bare bones of legally significant facts. Our textbooks present a condensation of what is important; unnecessary details are jettisoned in order to guide students to what matters before the law.
The apparent implication of the dearth of human detail in our books is that those kinds of things are not important in administering the law and therefore, should not be important to us in studying it. In the classroom context, this makes perfect sense. I don’t think I could handle any more details in the cases we read, and learning to distinguish the relevant from the extra gloss helps me think like an objective problem solver. By the time law students get to exams, we’re supposed to be able to take a complicated real-world problem, strip out everything that doesn’t matter and apply legal principles to the facts that survive the initial gutting to come up with an answer.
As I have gotten better at this skill, I began to build a mental wall to block out what isn’t legally important. You can take even the most personal details of a person’s life and try to push them through the gate, but by the time the wall has done its work, each scenario will be edited down to the barest of bones. I didn’t understand how strange this mindset was until I hit a moment when the wall I had built began to fall apart.
Last week I spent a day writing a letter to a man in prison, the client of my team for the Innocence Project. And when I say writing, I don’t mean typing out on a computer. I mean writing out by hand. It might have been that the act of writing out a letter felt so personal. It might have been the knowledge that the same pages I had before me would be in our client’s hands, in his cell, that made it feel real. But what I think really did it was that the letter, in my handwriting, on paper from my notepad, felt like a tangible little piece of me that was going to go off in the mail to him that would break a little bit of the professional veil that I had expected to hide behind. Thinking I would be a little more real to him made him so much more real to me.
My team has spent all semester working diligently on our client’s case, reading court documents and looking at exhibits, listening to interviews and thumbing through photos … looking for a chink in the armor of a conviction. I’m certain we could all tell you more about the day of the crime in question than we could about any single day in our own lives. Our client’s life is open before us. Yet, when I turned something that felt personal over to him, something as simple as a hand-written letter, suddenly I felt the wall between the academic bones of the case and its human element fall apart.
I would urge every student, no matter whether in undergraduate or graduate school, to seek out an experience where they see how their future choices are actually going to impact people. Especially at a school like Duke, where so many students will end up in fields like banking, consulting and law, where the distance between practice and real people can become so great so easily. Understanding the human element of your profession will make you a more conscientious practitioner with a better understanding of the responsibility that comes with an education and influence.
Don’t just participate in the big-ticket civic engagement opportunities on campus like DukeEngage, take the time to seek out a position where you are directly involved in the way most people are going to interact with your field. For those considering law, seek out a legal aid or immigrant’s rights project, a teen court program, the Duke Innocence Project or any number of other programs that focus on the humanity behind the law.
But don’t just do those kinds of programs as a check mark on a list. That isn’t enough for you to get the real benefit. To really break down the divide between academic thinking and human empathy, you have to take a big step outside your comfort zone. I made it through an entire internship in immigration law, where clients’ most personal information and secrets were laid out before me everyday, without ever breaking through the barrier. I hid behind my status as an intern, comforted in the knowledge that those more knowledgeable than I were responsible for the clients’ welfare. Brave might not be the right word, but be bold enough to take the extra step to think about the things you are trying to solve as human problems, not just academic ones. To be at Duke you are the beneficiary of incredible privilege, the least you can do with that privilege is to make yourself the most responsible and compassionate practitioner of your skills.
Meredith Jewitt is a first-year law student and the former editorial page editor of The Chronicle. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow Meredith on Twitter @mljewitt.