Log in

A Message to Law Grads: Instead of Corporations, Help Ordinary People

This article originally appeared in The Atlantic on May 31, 2012.

by Lawrence Lessig

I am a professor of law at Harvard. I run the university’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. At that Center for Ethics, we study corruption. Not Rod Blagojevich, or Randy Duke Cunningham corruption — not “criminals violating the law” sort of corruption. Instead, corruption as in improper influence.

Think about a doctor taking money from a drug company, and then sitting on a panel that reviews that company’s drugs: Not illegal — if disclosed, not unethical — but nonetheless, an influence that causes many to wonder whether it was truth or money that led the doctor to approve the drugs.

Or think about an academic taking money from a telecom company, and then giving testimony before Congress that just so happens to serve the interest of that telecom. Nothing illegal about taking that money — if disclosed, nothing unethical — but nonetheless, an influence that causes many to wonder whether it was truth, or money, that led the academic to speak in favor of that company.

Or think about just about every member of the United States Congress taking money from the interests they regulate — Wall Street banks, coal companies, insurance companies, big pharma — and then regulating in a way that makes life great for them, while making life for the rest of us not quite as great. Nothing illegal about taking that money — if disclosed, nothing unethical — but nonetheless, an influence that causes many to wonder whether it is truth and justice that leads Congress to care about them. Or whether it is just the money.

I tell you this about me because I want to establish my own expertise about corruption, so that I have the authority to say this: My being here today, as your graduation speaker, is totally corrupt. There are plenty of brilliant and successful souls who would have loved the honor of addressing this graduating class of lawyers. But I’m here because I begged. And I begged because my nephew is one among you. And the love and pride that I feel for him led me to do something that I have literally never done before: ask to speak someplace. And that, in turn, led your law school to do something no law school has ever done before: granted me an honorary degree and allowed me to speak to a graduating class.

This is all deeply corrupt; I am expert and I can prove it. It wasn’t reason that led me here; it was love. And while that’s perhaps a more pedestrian, forgivable sort of corruption, the question it now best is whether I can dig myself out of this deep and corrupt hole, to make something useful, maybe even virtuous, from this corruption.

Many of my students feel corruption every day of their working lives. They came to law school to do justice. They left law school to work in Inc. Law — “Inc.” as in law for corporations. No doubt, that is an honorable and important part of our profession, but for many of them, this isn’t the law they imagined when they came to law school. They go through their whole careers never meeting a client who is a real person, only representatives of the “persons” we call corporations. And while there are many who are convinced that corporations are persons, as I once saw on a sign at a protest, I’ll believe that corporations are persons when Texas executes one.

My point is not to criticize Inc. Law. It helps create wealth; it helps protect wealth. It gives great innovators a chance to bring their innovations to market.

Instead my point is to emphasize the importance of the other part of law. Not the “Inc.” part, but the part that touches real people with real problems. It’s the part that keeps a family in their home against an unjust demand for eviction. Or enforces a simple contract with a bank, to supply the credit for a coffee shop. Or protects a woman against her abusive husband. Or forces an insurance company to pay on a claim it rightly owes. Or defends a child in a foster home against the neglect of a distracted state.

This, too, is law — the law of Erin Brockovich, not the law of Cravath Swaine & Moore.

But here’s the thing about this law: No one thinks it works well.

There are plenty of lawyers in “Inc. Law” who go home at the end of the day and feel that that system works. Their clients got the process they were due. Their arguments were heard. Their interests were fairly considered. If through litigation, the litigation took place in a federal court with great judges, beautiful carpets, and clean bathrooms. If through a transaction, the deal was cut in a conference room at the Four Seasons. No doubt, these lawyers work hard. And the system rewards them with the confidence that the system works.

Not so with the law of real people. There is no one in the criminal justice system who believes that system works well. There is no one in housing law who believes it is what law was meant to be. In contracts, you read about disputes involving tens of dollars, maybe a hundred — the disputes of ordinary people. These disputes are not for the courts anymore. Or if they are, they are for courts that are an embarrassment to the ideals of justice. The law of real people doesn’t work, even if the law of corporations does.

Now if I were to don my reformers cap and turn to questions that I spend most of my time now addressing — the corruption of our democracy by the corrupting influence of money — I’d say, who could be surprised by this? In a world where 0.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 during a congressional election, 0.05 percent max out, and 0.01 percent give more than $10,000, a mere 0.0000063 percent — 196 Americans — have given more than 80 percent of the superPAC money spent so far in this election. Who could be surprised that it is the law for the rich that works and the law for the rest of America that doesn’t?

We lawyers are responsible for this corruption. And we lawyers will only earn back the respect of the people when we show the people that the law serves the people well. That it serves them quickly. That it serves them efficiently. That it serves them justly.

In the 225 years since our Constitution was drafted, no one can doubt the extraordinary progress business has made. The framers of the Constitution — who included businessmen, farmers, scientists, physicians, and some lawyers — would certainly be in awe of that progress. They would have also been in awe of the progress in farming: lack of food isn’t America’s problem today. Too much food is. Ben Franklin, the most famous American scientist and most beloved of the founders, couldn’t have even conceiveconceived of an iPhone, let alone a hand-held calculator. And Dr. James McHenry, who studied with the framing generation’s most famous doctor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, still believed bloodletting was the best way to deal with most illness.

In all of those fields, we as a people have made enormous progress. Yet the story of the law is more ambiguous. We today can pronounce the word “equality” with conviction; our framers stumbled over that idea. And we today can be proud of the range of citizens that we count as equal as compared with those they plainly and wrongly excluded.

But if you look at day-to-day law as it affects ordinary people, it’s clear that the law back then was aimed at a more pedestrian crowd — at ordinary citizens and ordinary problems. And it’s clear that the greatest lawyers worked first on the law aimed toward that pedestrian crowd.

Since that time, we’ve seen little progress in this aspect of the law. Indeed, we’ve seen an accelerating retreat. We can cure cancer today. We could, if we chose, feed every human on the planet, three times over. But we can’t give an ordinary citizen an easy and efficient way to protect her rights.

Courts are less open today than they were back then to the small claims — small in the scale of things, but not in their importance to those who bring them. Courts are less relevant to most Americans. The system has convinced most of us that the law is for the rich, except that part of the law that involves the prisons.

We, all of us, have a duty to fix this, to make it better. We lawyers in particular have that duty. We fulfill it by practicing the law of real people, and through that practice, making that law better.

When my nephew told me he wanted to give up his career in journalism, and his career as a racecar driver, to become a lawyer, I was skeptical. I got the journalism part. But give up being a racecar driver?

I was skeptical because I’m not convinced we know any more how to do this law stuff well. How — how to do it in a way that should make us proud, and gives others a reason to be proud of us.

But as I watched him grow through his years at this law school, I recognized that my skepticism was wrong. Never more than the day when he told me that he was thinking of simply hanging up a shingle after he left Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and practicing the law of real people.

He is brilliant, and generous, and playful and smart: And he will have a life that almost none of my students have: Every day, he will meet the people he is trying to help. And some days, he will feel that he has helped them. He has the talent to make “People Law” better.

And so I begged to celebrate this day with him, and therefore with you, because I wanted him, and you, to hear this one thought.

When you practice this law of real people, when you experience the way the law fails real people, when you see that the only medicine that you have to prescribe — bloodletting — helps no one except the vampires, recognize this:

There is no one who could justify the system we’ve allowed to evolve. There is no one who could defend its failures. But the men — and okay, only men, and only white men, and mainly white men with property — who gave us our nation also gave us a promise of something more than this.

And so when you experience this law of real people, you should feel entitled to demand that it work better. However bad it is, you should be proud of your work. But remain proud only if you do something to push it to become as great as our proud tradition promised it would be.

When LBJ took up the cause of civil rights, he was warned against it by his advisors. They told him that he would lose and doom his presidency. “What the hell is being a president for?” he replied and then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Well, I ask, what the hell is being a lawyer for?

You are as great as your proud parents hoped you would be. That’s what they feel today, as they watch you today accept this degree.

They stand with you today — those who watched you grow up and now celebrate the promise of your life. But as you begin your career as a lawyer, as you begin to dig yourself out of the financial hole that you are in, as you enter a field too many think is just corrupt, don’t think just about your families and the pride they can’t hide today.

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 willlove 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?

June 1, 2012 | Namati