Monday, April 4, 2016

Check Your Facts

When I was a law student, I lobbied my law school to adopt a public service graduation requirement. With the help of like-minded students and professors, I was trying to convince the school to make students do a few hours of volunteer legal work to graduate. 

I believed then (as I do now more than ever) that the practice of law is fundamentally different from other types of for-profit businesses: It is rooted in a public, civic system, and therefore shouldn't be the source of unfettered profit in my opinion. I thought my law school, like many others, should require students to acknowledge this by making a few hours of public interest legal work at a nonprofit or government entity a necessary part of their education.

The dean of my law school disagreed with me. 

She was a buttoned-up woman in her 60's who came up in a corporate legal culture that was extremely unkind to women, and hardened many of them into intolerably unpleasant people through entrenched abuse. Moreover, she did not share my quasi-socialist view of the law. Her job was to raise money for the school, and for reasons that elude me to this day, she viewed me as a threat to those efforts.

One day she marched up to me in the law school cafeteria and chewed me out loudly in front of dozens of students and professors. She admonished me to CHECK MY FACTS (i.e. certain statistics supposedly proving the community service requirement was a bad idea or less common than I thought). I would LEARN AS A LAWYER SOMEDAY HOW IMPORTANT IT WAS TO CHECK MY FACTS, screamed the woman who had not actually practiced law in a long time.

She tried to humiliate me, and she succeeded. I was 24, so I did what any 24 year-old woman would do. I cried and didn't eat for a day. 

I had an interview the following morning for a judicial clerkship I would ultimately get and take in Alaska--an interview she'd had a hand in arranging. Not wanting me to bomb this interview, presumably, she called me into her office to "apologize."  Her "apology" consisted of a more muted, private version of the public tirade to which she had subjected me earlier, the message being that she was wrong in her delivery, but correct in her point, so the ends justified the means. 

I never found out if she was right or wrong in the substance (she was indisputably wrong in her delivery), but it didn't matter because she did, in fact, teach me an important lesson about "checking my facts."

The fact is, I wish I'd had the balls to tell her to check her facts 14 years ago. If I had been older, more self-confident, on Prozac, and basically as short on fucks as I am now, I would have rattled off a few facts of my own, instead of withering into a little shriveled-up ball and crying until I couldn't breathe. I still wish I could go back in time and tell her to double-check these facts:

1. FACT: Community service matters, and if you never do any, you're kind of an asshole.

2. FACT: It's blatantly insane to speak to another human being this way, much less a student, and I have never done it to anyone unprovoked. If you do speak to someone this way, it usually means you're a pretty miserable person who wants to make everyone else around you miserable too. When people do this to me now--and sometimes they do--I go completely ape shit on them.  And guess what? Miraculously, they wither into a little ball and never yell at me ever again. It's always an incredibly satisfying exchange. So I've gone from fearing these kinds of confrontations to actively welcoming them and even courting them when I think they are necessary to correct an injustice.

3. FACT: Unless you're a capital defender with clients on death row, no one is going to die because YOU'RE A LAWYER WHO DIDN'T CHECK YOUR FACTS. Even then, it's unlikely anyone will die.

4. FACT: If you want future alumni to donate money to your institution, it might behoove you not to verbally abuse the source of your future endowment in public.

5. FACT: In the end, you are responsible for your own happiness. This is a big responsibility and it's lonely and terrifying to contemplate. Achieving personal happiness is the ultimate exercise of self-determination. No job, friend, relative, lover, spouse, boss, or material possession can do that for you. The good news about that, though, is that this principle works both ways: none of these people or things have the power to make you unhappy either. You just have to decide that they won't, and that's a fact.

Trust me, I checked.

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