Will Meyerhofer: Save the World

Will MeyerhoferIf law students are annoying, then pre-law students are twice as annoying. There’s something about observing these lemmings scrabble their way into the maws of ruthless law schools, despite dire warnings and appeals to common sense, that just…gets under my skin.

Even after so much effort has been expended for their benefit – i.e., which part of “Way Worse Than Being a Dentist” didn’t you understand? – these piteous creatures patiently queue up for their punishment, hungry to “learn to think like a lawyer.” If your resolve weakens, and pity prevails over contempt, you might mistakenly engage one in conversation. For your trouble, you’ll receive an earful of a clueless pipsqueak’s master plan to save the world. Because – you hadn’t heard? – that’s why he’s going to law school: The betterment of humanity.

Because that’s what the world so desperately needs:  Another lawyer.

Somehow or other, these automata get it into their programming that, if they actually did want to save the world, becoming a lawyer would be a sensible way to do it. They are unaware of how imbecilic their words sound to anyone not entirely befuddled by the miasma of law school propaganda.

Law schools inundate proto-lawyers with ‘lawyers save the world’ nonsense, cramming their crania with musty tales of Brown v Board of Ed. That’s because the schools are well aware of the likely effect of such indoctrination: Greasing the rails to the killing floor. If a kid can tell himself he’s going to “change the world” – as opposed to, say, “make a lot of money and feel like a big deal” – then he’ll line up that extra bit more smugly for the $160k/year that makes his eyes roll up into his head and a little string of drool form at the corner of his mouth.

It’s simple: If you can tell yourself you’re doing it for the good of humankind, you won’t feel so guilty selling out in the most soulless, stereotypical way imaginable.

 

You know the vast majority of law students will end up deeply in debt and unemployed. We all know that. But before that happens, the sorry little shlemiels honest-to-god tell themselves they’re going to save the world.

The problem is lawyers very seldom do change the world, at least for the better. The bulk of significant positive change that the world experiences at any given moment – surprise! – doesn’t derive from the actions of lawyers. It derives from the actions of non-lawyers, or, at very least, lawyers acting in non-lawyer-y ways.

Evidence? Let’s start with a quote from one of the nation’s top civil rights attorneys, Michelle Alexander, from her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

In recent years…a bit of mythology has sprung up regarding the centrality of litigation to racial justice struggles. The success of the brilliant legal crusade that led to Brown has created a widespread perception that civil rights lawyers are the most important players in racial justice advocacy…Not surprisingly…many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers. This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system. Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve – i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem.

Got that? Here’s a top-flight lawyer, at the center of a struggle to address the disaster of a nation that locks up a vast percentage of its poorest, most vulnerable citizens based largely on their race (whites don’t go to jail for minor drug possession offenses, blacks do.) What’s she saying? There are too many lawyers.

One of my clients, another committed, talented lawyer, who works on the West Coast in a not-for-profit to aid people with disabilities, reiterated the same message, as he vented his frustration with his job:

I don’t agree with the basic proposition of my office – the idea that people with disabilities can only be helped by bringing law suits. Most of the time that seems counter-productive. It’s incredibly inefficient and costly and the cases drag on forever. Meanwhile, the non-disabled service providers – the people we’re trying to educate, the people we need on-board to help us make the lives of people with disabilities easier – are converted into our enemies because we’re suing them. Soon everything turns into a world run by lawyers, that oh-so-lawyer-y world where avoiding liability drives every decision. Instead of practical, common-sense compromises and workaday solutions that might help people with disabilities improve their daily lives, we create an upside down world where everyone’s sole motivation is trying to dodge law suits.

Why does he stay, if that’s how he feels? You guessed it:  School debt. He’s stuck at his job because of massive law school loans. If he stays at his not-for-profit for a certain number of years, and bites his tongue, he can get his loans forgiven. That’s the one and only reason why he hasn’t left to pursue direct activism – education, political advocacy… all that nice non-lawyer-y stuff. He’s stuck being a lawyer, thinking like a lawyer, even though he knows it isn’t the best way to accomplish whatever world-saving he hopes to achieve. And that’s a drag.

So maybe the reality is that we don’t need endless heroic, committed, brilliant lawyers championing change any more than we need craven pre-law school weenies pretending they intend to become heroic, committed, brilliant lawyers championing change. The fact is, at least in the USA, we’ve got more lawyers than at any time in our history, and whether or not it is as a direct result of that situation, things are amply screwed up. It doesn’t appear to be the case that more lawyers is going to improve matters.

Well then, what do we need?  How about grassroots organizers?

The Republicans love to make fun of Barack Obama for being a community organizer before he went to law school. Personally, I think it’s cool that Obama (unlike, say, Mitt Romney or John Roberts) left the prestige bubble of top-tier schools for a few years to learn something about the real world. He probably learned more about world-changing from walking the streets of South Chicago than from cite-checking the Harvard Law Review. The majority of “Dreams from my Father,” Obama’s justifiably lauded first book, is about being an organizer, not a law student.

Astonishing as it might seem, there are plenty of non-lawyers who fight for justice and change. They get good results, too… at least, better than the lawyers.

Back in the 1980′s, before I became a lawyer, I marched and got arrested a few times with ACT-UP. I put myself out there with a bunch of other non-lawyers, demanding access to medical treatment for people with AIDS. Many of those non-lawyers I marched and got arrested with put their asses on the line because they didn’t want to die, or watch their friends die, from the effects of bureaucracy and homophobia.

ACT-UP changed the world. It made a difference and saved lives. And lo and behold, the heroes of ACT-UP weren’t lawyers.  Sure, there were a few lawyers there, who mostly dealt with the various bureaucracies involved in getting us out of jail after civil disobedience actions (thanks, guys.) But that was routine stuff. The best work done by the members of ACT-UP, the work that really blew me away, was done by regular (non-lawyer) human beings.

I was amazed, for example, by the artists, designers and illustrators from the Gran Fury Collective, who created posters and banners for our demonstrations, and made “Silence = Death” a catchword for millions.

I was astounded by the Treatment Action Group, a bunch of regular (non-lawyer) civilian folks from a variety of backgrounds who trained themselves in the latest HIV science, so they could educate patients facing difficult treatment choices and advocate to the medical profession for improved care and a more rational system of drug-testing.

I was deeply impressed by the talented folks coming from careers in advertising and PR, who led press conferences and crafted statements and manifestos for up-coming protests, explaining in the clearest possible terms the rationale behind our campaigns.

The lesson I wished I’d learned from all this work with ACT-UP was that the world doesn’t become a better place because another person becomes a lawyer. If you want to do something, make a difference, you can just do it. You don’t have to be a lawyer suing someone. Litigating isn’t the only answer to the world’s problems.

If you’re concerned about crime, you don’t have to be a prosecutor – join a law enforcement organization.  If you want to improve schools, well, how about becoming a teacher?  Whatever the problem is you want to solve, you don’t have to be a lawyer to spot an issue, gather a group of people around you, and do something to address it – even if all you do is stage a protest, write a column in a local paper or talk to your friends and neighbors.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t a lawyer. Neither was Rosa Parks.  They changed the world.

The single greatest waste of talent created by this generation’s stampede to law schools comes in the sciences.  Here’s a passage from “The Emperor of Maladies,” a history of the scientific battle against cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a brilliant writer and physician who, thank goodness, didn’t become a lawyer:

Druker [a cancer researcher] proposed an ambitious collaboration between Ciba-Geigy and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to test the kinase inhibitors in patients. But the agreement fell apart; the legal teams in Basel and Boston could not find agreeable terms. Drugs could recognize and bind kinases specifically, but scientists and lawyers could not partner with each other to bring these drugs to patients. The project, having generated an interminable trail of legal memos, was quietly tabled.

Yes. A promising treatment for a virulent form of leukemia, and a step forward towards that greatest of all dreams, a cure for cancer, was stopped in its tracks by…you guessed it… lawyers.  And not just any lawyers. These lawyers worked in pharma, so you know they used to be scientists. They were probably at Harvard or Stanford, laboring in laboratories, when it suddenly dawned on them – hey, I could switch to law and three years from now I’ll have a posh office and a secretary and a fat biglaw salary. Sign me up!

Why should you work hard at something difficult and important when you could chase big bucks in IP litigation, serving corporate masters hungry for profit?  Maybe because you actually want to help people, instead of talking about helping people while you sell out to the highest bidder.

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. To quote Mukherjee:

…Druker was persistent…having learned his lessons…[he] walked over to the legal department at OHSU [the new laboratory he founded to escape red tape] and, revealing little about the potential of the chemicals, watched as the lawyers absentmindedly signed on the dotted line.

It was that easy, a matter of getting around the lawyers (who, in my experience, mostly don’t know what they’re talking about anyway, they’re just reflexively risk-averse.)  The drug in question went on to revolutionize cancer research.  That’s what it takes, much of the time, to change the world: Getting around lawyers.

A final thought. Sometimes it seems like not becoming a lawyer could, in itself, save the world.  I was watching a documentary the other day on the astonishing Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. Yes, it turns out that somewhere after finishing college he was feeling lost and a bit desperate…so much so that he very nearly went to law school. Thank goodness we dodged that bullet. Murakami went on instead to open a jazz bar in Tokyo, then write some of the best novels of the past fifty years.

The world’s a better place because Murakami-san didn’t become a lawyer.

I implore you:  Follow in his proud path.

It might make all the difference. It could save the world.

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This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.

My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space.  It’s called Bad Therapist: A Romance.  I guarantee pure reading pleasure…

If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s book about the sad state of the legal profession, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning

My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:  Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

(My books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.) 

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