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11 May 2009

20 Years On

This week marks the 20th anniversary of my graduation from law school, so I want to reflect on that.

Certainly, I have learned quite a lot in 20 years of being a lawyer. I am one of those who disliked law school, even though I fared reasonably well and appreciated the academic rigor, the content, and some of my teachers and classmates. But now, after many years of looking back at that period of my life with resentment, I've begun to remember it with some fondness. Not that I would ever go to a reunion, however. In fact, recently, I received materials related to my class's upcoming 20-year reunion. It was nice to see some of the names of active alums (which, I guess, means folks who've donated) from the class of 1989: my dormmates, roommates, and fellow musicians. It was also not nice to see some of their names: the ass kissers, sycophants, conservatives, brats, and just plain assholes.

There were also the names of several law school classmates who had died. Three were friends of mine: Mark Bregar, Rona Morrow, and Steve Fogel. They were all very different, but they were all very good, smart people. I knew of Steve's death because he had perished in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I had been unaware of Mark's and Rona's passings, however, and that news certainly struck me. I didn't know Mark well. He was a very quiet, studious fellow, but was very friendly and funny. He had spent several years in the military before coming to law school. He was extremely sharp but very sweet and his politics were great.

Rona was a former biker chick and rock 'n roll singer, at that time in her mid-to-late 40s maybe. I recall her telling me that she had had a serious drug or alcohol addiction (or both) before kicking it and coming to law school. She served with me on the editorial board of the InterAmerican Law Review. She was just very cool. I remember she made me a cassette tape of Lou Reed's then-new album, New York, which is still one of my favorite rock albums. On the flip side she put the Cowboy Junkies with their version of Sweet Jane. I really liked Rona.

I don't remember Steve's politics, but Mark and Rona were strong liberals, like me. At that time, in the midst of Reagan's Republican and Conservative "revolution" (which was, actually, a devolution for which we are all now suffering), there weren't many of us at the University of Miami Law School. We were far outnumbered by the wealthy, conservative, often Cuban American students who had their hopes and dreams set on becoming powerful lawyers, working at big firms, and greasing the wheels of the economy so they could eat their piece of the Pie. That's really all most of my classmates gave a shit about.

I went into law school thinking I'd come out with the opportunity to make a good living, but my goal was to obtain a law degree to do that old-fashioned thing: Help people. I'd spent the two summers before law school working for a personal injury plaintiff's lawyer who represented little guys against the big guys, and he won. A lot. And that felt good and right to me. He fought for the underdog, so that's what I wanted to do too.

I remember very well that this was a theme echoed and reinforced by my law school dean and professors for three solid years. At our orientation dinner, Dean Mary Doyle told us of her experience as a young lawyer investigating the prison riot at Attica in New York State, and Governer Rockefeller's awful response to it and how it had transformed her. I remember that some of my new classmates didn't think much of her speech, but I thought it was fascinating. I wanted to do something like that, perhaps.

In her speech at our graduation ceremony three years later, Dean Doyle said that by becoming lawyers we were going to have a lot of power and we would be in a position to help people who had no power. That resonated with me.

During the period in between orienation and commencement, Dean Doyle's messages were driven home by several fine professors: Richard Hyland, who taught me contracts and that modern contract law was about equalizing bargaining power. Alan Swan, who taught me that the Constitution was structured to prevent concentrations of state power and that the Roosevelt-era and Warren Courts' interpretation of the Commerce Clause permitted the evolution of progressive legislation in two major areas that we now take for granted: regulation of the economy and the protection of civil rights. Irwin Stotzky, who taught me that fourth and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution were designed to preserve individual liberty from the encroachments of the state weilding its police power. Michael Fischl, who taught me that unions were how low-income and working-class people protected themselves from corporate domination. Steve Winter, who had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; the organization started by Thurgood Marshall. And Jeremy Paul, who introduced me to law and morality through the Hart-Fuller exchange, and the various theories of jurisprudence.

Fischl and Paul were "Crits" -- adherents of the Critical Legal Studies movement -- who believed that law is an expression of power and that those who have access to legal and legislative process (the rich), control society's distribution of wealth and prerogatives. Some called them vulgar Marxists, but I called them smart. They examined the assumptions about human nature underlying the law and, in so doing, pointed out how mistaken most of those assumptions were. All of this reinforced my values and provided greater direction. Maybe they were socialists and maybe they weren't. Frankly, they just wanted the legal system to be fair, and who except the most insecure could argue with that. My Crit professors helped me connect the political theory I'd learned as an undergraduate to the law. And, importantly, they helped me understand that legal education was about the reproductionof heirarchy. That it was, actually, a type of brainwashing and that, if you weren't careful, you were going to get sucked into fucking people over as a lawyer representing powerful interests. Indeed, they were so right: Just look at where most of the top law graduates go. To big firms representing commercial interests who, in turn, dominate the political process and appropriate public space and funds for their private benefit. I owe the Crits very much.

I was fortunate to have been admitted to the editorial board of the InterAmerican Law Review and, in my third year, to be elected Research and Writing Editor. I wanted to write and publish an article, so I chose as my topic the U.S. indictment of Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. At the time, this was an unprecedented extension of federal criminal law that struck me as highly political because Reagan wanted Noriega gone after he refused to continue supplying arms the fascist Nicraguan contras and refused to stop shipping cocaine to the U.S. (Noriega was a fascist too, but that's beside the point.) That began another branch of the great odyssey for me. It was, by far, my most memorable and wonderful experience in law school. I enjoyed doing that work and helping my classmates with their articles. I learned so much.

I was able to publish the article in volume 20 of the Review and, after I graduated and moved to Washington, it turned out that the article received some attention, which encouraged me to pursue further scholarly research and writing. I became a law teacher at Catholic University and human rights lawyer, doing a little work in El Salvador and Colombia. I received a fellowship to teach and practice in an affordable housing law clinic at Georgetown, representing the District of Columbia's low-income, mostly Salvadoran tenants who lived in the worst slum housing in the city. I learned how speak and read some Spanish. I got my ass kicked by some pretty slick slumlords' lawyers, but I also learned how to kick ass from some awesome poverty lawyers, one of whom people used to think was a nun until she tore them a new one in her very quiet, unassuming way. She saved me from my arrogant, insecure, young self. She taught me that you don't need to be a loud, obnoxious, machoman to be a great lawyer and that, in fact, those characteristics had nothing whatever to do with lawyering. She really saved my life and, by so doing, helped me help others with their lives.

After that, I became an undergraduate government teacher at American University while remaining involved in community work and, eventually, co-founding a course of study at AU called Transforming Communities, where I was able to bring together 10 years of experience. Ultimately, I moved on to my current job where I labor to improve the administration of justice in the federal courts.

So, 20 years on, I'd say things have turned out all right. It has taken all those years for the values that I have internalized, stood for, worked for, and taught about to be publicly vindicated by a President of the United States who is, basically, my age and had strikingly similar professional experiences. After he graduated from law school (two years after me), he chose the high road. Why? Because he knew his law degree gave him power to help those who didn't have it. And he's still doing doing the same thing in a different context and in a way those of us not old enough to remember FDR (which is most of us) have never before seen.

The past 20 years have, at times, been very lonely and depressing for me professionally. For years the little guys got the shitty end of the stick and it just kept getting worse. Those who worked in the trenches got no acknowledgment or credit. But these years have also been extraordinarily rewarding (and that doesn't even begin to describe my personal life). I wouldn't trade them for anything.

And, now, I'm lonely no more. I have a national leader, finally, who believes in all the things I do and thinks the way I do. A president who understands the importance of empathy among those with power, the centrality of community to our sense of meaning, and that material things just don't matter very much. And there is a huge tide of young people who feel the same way, ready to follow in his wake.

Relationships. Love. Caring. Community. Twenty years on, I have arrived.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Hi, Mark. After 20 years, hi seems inappropriate but.... I had heard something vaguely about your becoming a law professor but lost all news after that. I am glad to see you doing so well -- and doing good -- yasher koach.

    I came across your blog while searching for a source i could cite on wikipedia to create a page about Rona that would link off the page of her late husband howie wyeth. i just though she deserved more mention than what she got. losing her was really hard for me. she was my best friend toward the end of law school and after, although the desperate truth is that i lost her long before she died in 2001 (two months after Steve Fogel died), while i was on my honeymoon, after no-showing at my wedding. she had long before fallen back into regular drug use, unfortunately, and i couldn't save her. that and some other stuff i won't mention on a public blog, but if you want more of her story write me and i will fill you. it's very sadly ironic though, if you recall the topic of her law review article (that might tell you enough right there).

    anyway, just thought it would be nice to make a connection this late night while i was thinking of her and missing her. i am glad you are well.

    Julie Levitt(now Levitt-Guren) julie_levitt@hotmail.com