On Legal Education

Arts + Education + Media + Public
January 8, 2014
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Jimmy Santiago Baca went into prison illiterate. He came out a poet, bona fides. Few things stack up to that. But something he recently said in an interview sounds like the echo of a close look at legal education.


Law is a challenging profession for quite a few reasons, primarily because attorneys not only absorb complex and unfavorable circumstances for their clients (as psychotherapists do), but because they also take responsibility for resolving issues of monetary and mortal significance according to a body of authority that is constantly in flux (unlike any profession other than medicine). We adopt in scores the intractable problems of the sort many of us face personally only once or twice in a lifetime.

There is another, often overlooked reason for the challenging nature of the profession. Reading law makes a powerful impression on the mind. Like all education, it is a changing of the mind, including a physiological change. And like any experience, it is irreversible. Once you have been exposed to it, you cannot undo it. You cannot get back your prior perspective. The knowledge is invaluable, but comes not without cost. Attorneys often know much more than they would like to (whether they cognize that burden of knowledge or not), sometimes because it means knowing a circumstance will not be righted despite knowing precisely what went wrong.

Knowing how society is constructed – how all relationships work and on what premises they rest, where things come from and where they are going – siphons a vast sum of mystery from life. And that mystery is ordinarily beautiful. It can be even that from which beauty itself is fashioned.

By a legal education attorneys are empowered to see through the history and the future of things, broadly, and almost any thing. The lawyer looks at a book and sees more than its words. The lawyer sees the bargain which placed responsibility for creation of the artwork with an agency chosen by the publisher, and the independent contracting arrangement with the agency that forced negotiations on copyright ownership of layers of software files of which the imagery is comprised, and the recycling and forestry regulations that dictated downstream market parameters for the production of the paper on which the final design is printed, and the implied warranties given on the multimodal bill of lading attached to the reams offloaded for inspection by federal customs officials, and the international environmental treaties speaking to the chemicals used to treat the paper in the production process, and the manufacturing employee who was harmed by inhaling those chemicals for years at work as a result of safety violations that went unreported due to government cuts that hamstrung inspection capacity, and the union whose help the employee rejected but to which she stills pays an agency fee, and the complaint filed with the trial court by an attorney risking time and treasure to proceed on her behalf for a chance at a contingency fee, and the rules of ethics requiring that attorney to get that contingency fee agreement in writing, and the third-party complaint filed out of time by the factory against a machine company, and the motion to strike it, and the notice of claim communicated to the machine company’s insurer, and the ancillary suit regarding coverage for the costs of defense, and whether any unreimbursed portion of those costs constitutes a legitimate tax deduction if the third-party complaint is stricken and the matter is fully settled to the employee’s satisfaction by the factory before trial begins, and, if trial proceeds, the selection of a jury that must determine whether and to what extent the employee is compensated for her harm, and the judge that will guard the gates of evidence proffered, and the motion in limine supported by a policy argument about privacy and technology that is made to exclude a damning correspondence from the evidentiary record, and the election or appointment of that judge, and the campaign finance doctrines that shaped election of the judge or the judge’s appointor, and the slight but not insignificant influence those doctrines must have on the laws governing the personal injury case and thus the scope of democracy in a system of individual rights asserted by petition under the First Amendment, and perhaps the very author of that book – who may have written something about democracy in it.


There are waypoints on the spectrum of seeing. Early is literacy. Later is a juris doctor. It is certainly possible to desire a return to pure literacy from the juris doctor, but it is not possible to make it. And maybe that is ok. Mr. Baca can take it from here:

Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of that morbid state of being. Not knowing how to read and write leads to not knowing where windows come from, how cars are made, how people pay for cars. Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of the problem because behind that wall, you don’t know anything and how anything operates in society. And that’s the nightmare.

Listen to the interview.

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