The sinfulness of crime might be described as an unjust application of power, and the “cry of distress” that follows. A crime is a crime because it leaps the fence of personal space and takes what hasn’t been earned. This is true not just of those individuals society labels as “criminal”, but also of most politicians, quite a few marriages, and perhaps all employment relationships. A persistent flaw in human nature is to try to scalp what hasn’t been earned, which is why we say that those who have evolved beyond such things have “character.” They have mastered the arts of self-control. It’s not until we are challenged by powerful events — or perhaps even a powerful person — that we are forced to measure our personal use of power and begin to reckon whether our character is in proper working order.
People like to tell me, “You just see the world that way because of the work you do!” This is whistling past the graveyard, a talisman that keeps the bogey away, I’m sure, but it’s also a touch dehumanizing. Think of it this way: people inside the medical field observe what folks do to their bodies. We inside the criminal justice system observe what folks do to their souls. The reason people can’t address that is simple: they don’t want to. We lawyers remind people of the moral and spiritual realities they don’t want to face. The more someone hates lawyers, the less they want to talk about what’s real. It’s the law.
High Priests? A freshly minted lawyer, talking to me my last summer before law school, passed on something I never forgot: “If nothing else, law school teaches you how to think.” Of course that is not true in many cases — I have known my share of dunderheaded lawyers — but there is certainly truth to it. The law school process, if properly conducted, forces you to divorce your ego from from the facts, from prior assumptions, from your cherished opinions. An unanswered legal question doesn’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, Baptist or Catholic. You learn to tangle with the merits of an idea, not hold your expectations hostage to one outcome or another. The best lawyers are often isolated from the common run of humanity, because the common run of humanity associates truth with passion. Lawyers learn how to dismantle passion and examine the merits of the idea. Bill Clinton called it ‘compartmentalizing.’ Brilliant. And very true.
I don’t know how many people truly appreciate what lawyers do. The truth is, our functions as lawyers are priestly. Lawyers are conditioned to keep confidences; forced to perform duties in areas of fear and degradation that other people would flee; develop skills of problem-solving that defy ordinary understanding. My early years as a deputy prosecutor were a hot house that forced me to grow in ways I would have otherwise never understood. You learn to keep your cool under the most demanding circumstances. Just the facts, ma’am.
One of the earliest things you must accept as a prosecutor is that there’s nobody to talk to. Lawyers talk to other lawyers about their cases; they talk to cops; they talk to people inside the system. But your friends and the people in your family have no idea what trial attorneys actually do — the stress, the uncertainty, the constant pushing of self past the last default position you thought was the extreme — even if they think they do from watching tv. And attorneys tend to talk about their cases, not yours. Most of us don’t — actually, can’t — talk about the mistreatment we daily receive from members of the public. We learn to joke about it. We very seldom receive praise; and the criticisms are, by and large, cliches that are mocked behind closed doors. The mocking masks a lot of pain, and that pain, over the long run, is what builds skill.
To be a lawyer means to be outcast, more often than not. The summer before I went to law school I made an appointment with a doctor’s office for a physical, to comply with university requirements. In response to the nurse’s questions, I innocently mentioned that I was going to law school. She frowned, made a note, and left the examination room. Next thing I know, I’m getting a cat scan. That was the start of my education: the mere whisper of the word lawyer changes the weather in a doctor’s office, and that was 30 years ago.
When you say “There are too many lawyers in this country” you are describing a symptom, not a cause. The correct diagnosis is, “There are too many people in this country who are unwilling to honestly take responsibility for themselves.” Lawyers are forced to step into that space where people abdicate personal responsibility. That’s what lawyers do.
Many people disagree with this statement, but think it through: the more self-sufficient you are in your decisions, in your actions, the less external authority is required.
Regular people have never spent a restless, sleepless night, roiling in the sweat of their anxiety, the night before a trial. They do not know about the feverish dreams, the doubt, the maniacal repetitions of questions, and answers, that roll through the night. I have walked into court knowing that I owed money, or knowing that a girlfriend was breaking things off with me, or knowing that someone was angry with me, and had to give that case all that I had. Do people really know what goes into trying a case? A lot of really great artists would give up their dreams at that point, but the indomitable trial lawyer continues to slog his way through enemy territory. Win, lose or draw, he or she is among the toughest breed of human being ever made.
And then there is the damage done to the fabric of one’s soul .… .
My first two weeks at the prosecutor’s office, I learned a lesson I never forgot. Uncertain what to do with myself one afternoon, I wandered into an office and casually picked up a handful of photos, turned them over and discovered they were autopsy photos of a six-week old baby, burned with cigarettes, and beaten, methodically, by his mother and her boyfriend over the course of his short, nasty, brutish life. There were other pictures, other reports, as the weeks went by. There were busted eyes, swollen vaginas, protruding bones, carrion-riddled bodies. Drugs. Insanity. Death. The little dead boy, battered and burned, remains in my mind to this day. Note to self: don’t look at pictures. To this day I expertly filter out information that doesn’t concern me. I don’t watch law shows.
I had a talent for criminal stuff. Can’t tell you why, exactly. I just did. The cops loved me. “Hanify smiles when he gigs ‘em”, they joked. I was just a grunt, but I was a grunt with style. My ability to inflict pain became razor sharp. I made it personal. Like collecting scalps.
It didn’t occur to me that I might be getting sick. Sick? The whole world was sick, chump. Don’t tell me what’s sick. Sick is having some idea of the suffering that goes on in this world and shoving it from your mind so that you don’t have to deal with it. That’s sick. Sick is knowing your teen is filling his mind with garbage and calling it “culture.” That’s sick.
Inside the criminal justice system, those anomalous shapes and difficulties get worked through a massive factory press that produces still further anomalies. Uniformity of result is never a part of the process, but wisdom, eventually, is.
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