A Legal Student – Then and Now

It’s a lot of tuition, and even more hard work. But the journey to be a lawyer in Canada just might be worth it.

In my column of this week’s Lawyers Weekly I ask the question, “What’s a lawyer worth these days?,” discussing the B.C. S.C. ruling in Danicek v. Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang.

Michelle Danicek, a recent UBC Law graduate, was injured days before the bar at a law firm event. She had a motor vehicle collision soon after that. The judge assessed her promising career as a corporate lawyer with a particular knack for working with clients and awarded nearly $6 million dollars.

Not everyone will be a legal superstar the way Michelle Danicek was expected to be.

But that wasn’t really the point of my article. I also cite Alan Watson and Khaled Abou El Fadel, in Fox Hunting, Pheasant Shooting, and Comparative Law, 48 Am. J. Comp. L. 1 (2000), who suggest that there may have been traditionally more to being a lawyer than just making money or winning cases.

Although jurists were men of the world, aware of social, political and economic realities, they also reveled in the very practice of interpreting the law. Legal interpretation was a sport. Yes, it was actually fun to analyze the law.

Developing a passion for the law is probably the best most logical strategy for navigating the stresses of law school, and the demands of a legal career that follow. Law school is the best time to nurture this passion, because legal practice only gets busier as the years go by.

It doesn’t mean that this legal passion will produce ideal legal outcomes. Indeed, it often does not. Watson and Abou El Fadl note a number of shortcomings from the self-absorbed nature of legal jurists of days past. These jurists usually operated outside of state control and sought their legitimacy from talking to each other, not the public or a courtroom. Consequently, principles of utility, public usefulness, and even fairness or justice were secondary concerns to their own legal techniques. To a lay outsider these jurists could appear absurd and remote from reality.

To illustrate, Watson and Abou El Fadl provide a number of examples from the Mishnah before concluding,

Medieval rabbis and Jewish community leaders understood the impracticality of much of the law in the Mishnah. The Rashba (R. Solomon ben Abraham Adret who lived in Barcelona around 1235- 1310) wrote in a responsum that if cases of personal injuries and similar matters were decided according to Torah law, the world would be destroyed. Subsequently the Ran (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi who lived circa 1310-1375) accepted that some Gentile societies had law better suited than the Torah to the social order. For him the Torah law is designed to serve a religious purpose, not to improve the
social order.

Their conclusion is not intended as a condemnation of Torah law, but rather an observation of the historic processes involved in its study,

No one, we believe, will conclude from the preceding section that we are critical of the rabbis’ stance. Indeed, the aim is to show that it belongs to an overrarching pattern. No one, we hope but with less optimism, will imagine that we think the rabbis were unaware of political, economic and social considerations. Only, these are not stressed. Our real claim is that the rabbis focused on interpretation according to their own canons. Of course, religion was there as the foundation, but often the situation discussed is so far distant from the circumstances of the biblical law that the connection can scarcely be seen.

They also discuss the Roman jurist, who although decided secular and with an entirely different relationship with the state, still followed a similar pattern of obsession over interpretation. Another distinguishing feature of Roman jurists was the importance that interpreting private law played for a Roman to rise to high public office.

Legal reform and attempts to make the law systemic were foreign to the classic jurists. The result was the development of often absurd and peculiar results in law. It was the interpretation that mattered, no the results. Even the clear intention of a law was recklessly disregarded to instead apply the literal meaning of the law in the harshest circumstances. For example, the emergence of French Civil Code arose largely out of the need to make sense of the haphazard mess of Roman legal principles.

In contrast, our legal studies are fully immersed in the reality of today. We not only look at how case law develops, but how it applies to our society today, and what it might be in the future. We experience living, dynamic, and intellectually fascinating version of the law. Even when we argue over original intent (originalism) or living tree (dynamism) in the common law, we are arguing principles and aspects of the law that simply didn’t concern the classic jurist very much.

Finally, Watson and Abou El Fadl discuss the classic jurists of Islamic law,

Muslim jurists understood and responded to material considerations through the prism of the legal culture, and quite often the legal culture imposed its own distinct reality. For jurists the hunt is not simply a sport; it is their profession and life…

Our point is that the technique of the jurist often imposes its own logic and structure, and that Muslim jurists, like their Roman and Jewish counterparts, were often more interested in technical soundness and demonstrations of prowess than in the impact of certain decisions or social results. This is not because these jurists were oblivious to the social realities that surrounded them, but because legal culture imposes its own overwhelming reality.

Jurists of today are likely even more overwhelmed with the reality of our day than the jurists of the past. They may no longer have the leisure to obsess over abstract hypotheticals completely unconnected to social imperatives. Sometimes it is sometimes possible to be critical of the stance of jurists when the stakes are that much greater.

In a recent review of Nader Hashimi’s Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies in the Globe and Mail, Faisal Kutty of Valparaiso University said,

Nineteenth-century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the relationship between religion and democracy in the West was the “great problem of our time.” While arguably it may be less significant in the West now, it is altogether a different matter in the Muslim world…

Chapter three contends that some form of secularism is assumed to be a sine quo non of liberal democracy and herein lays the most difficult tension. Hashemi does not challenge this, but he notes that secularism in the West is associated with positive developments. Many Muslims, on the other hand, associate it with the colonial/imperialist agenda, oppressive regimes and hostility to religion as exemplified by the more rigid (French) laïcité version. What needs to be defined, Hashemi asserts, is the precise relationship between secularism and liberal democracy. He suggests, echoing others, that there is considerable latitude in the form of secularism…

Hashemi’s book is undoubtedly a weighty contribution on the question of Islam and democracy, one of the “great problems of our time.”

Given the recent conflicts of the past decade, and the future conflicts undoubtedly to emerge in the future, this problem will also face the legal jurists of our day. Either they will continue in their abstractions, unable to recognize the social realities and the need for legal reform or systemic development of the law, or they will recognize something new.

John F. Kennedy‘s words are as true today as they were then,

Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.

To do so they will need to borrow across legal traditions. They will expand the dialogue that typically only takes place within closed juristic circles to a broader audience which will include jurists from entirely different disciplines. It may require them to work outside their areas of legal comfort, and consider alternative methodology of legal reasoning.

For the modern jurist this shouldn’t be seen as a threat. It’s an immense opportunity to learn – to learn for the rest of our lives, applying the passion of interpretation in bold and exciting new ways.

Because law school doesn’t ever really end for those of us who hold true passion for the law.