03 July 2012

Representing actual people

There is a lengthy article up at the Livingston County News (here) about one of my recent cases. I'm not going to go into a full blow-by-blow here, but here's the case in a nutshell(*1):

My clients asked the Geneseo village planning board for a permit to use their home as multi-family rental housing, a use allowed by the zoning code. The village board refused to grant the permit, for what I will charitably call reasons of dubious merit. We went to court to make the board issue the permit, and eventually won.

Suffice to say that I am very glad that I was able to help my clients. There are few things more frustrating than navigating a municipal bureaucracy, and in this case there was an overlay of anti-student rental backlash that made the sledding that much tougher.

I'd like to say that the success here was down to some brilliant insight, or a clever legal trick. But in truth, the village planning board should have given my clients the permit from the outset; the law was clear, and my clients were in the right. My job was to make the planning board do what it should have done in the first place; no more, and no less. And yet the work, and outcome, was enormously satisfying.

This case brought to mind a commencement speech given by a Harvard Law prof Lawrence Lessig to a fresh batch of law school graduates (full text here). His premise: being a lawyer is more fun, and more fulfilling, when you represent actual people, and don't simply chase money working for BigLaw and rich corporate interests. From the speech:

Think also about those who 40 years from now will look up to you and ask you: What did you do then? Think of your kids and their families. Think of the work they will see. Think of the rewards they will recognize.

They won't respect you for your money, or for your fame, or even for your incredible good looks. They will love you, no doubt, regardless. But they will only respect you for what you did, for who you became, for how you left the world. For how you made the law, "People Law," better.

Leave it better, lawyers, than we lawyers who have educated you have given it to you. Leave it in a place that your mother and your daughter, your father and your son, can respect. Not corrupt, but true. Not just rich, but just.

For what the hell is being a lawyer for?

I've practiced both ways. I spent a few well-paid years doing scut-monkey, bottom-run document review for big corporate clients fighting with other big corporate clients over mind-boggling gobs of money. And I've practiced at the other extreme, as an assistant public defender paid peanuts to defend individual clients with no money and few friends in the legal system.

For me, there is no contest. The Harvard prof has it right. What the hell is being a lawyer for, if not for standing by individual clients and forcing the system to bend toward justice?