Law, Social Change, and Identity

As I grow older and gain more experience with how the law actually interacts with ordinary people in the real world, I am realizing that I am losing my zealous idealization of the law’s potential to, on its own, act as a vehicle for social change. My immediate reaction to this loss of idealism was disillusionment, a feeling that, for me, was so unprecedented and anathema to my existential identity that authentically confronting it emotionally drained me for some time. However, by honestly discussing with other law students and lawyers, as well as reading others’ thoughts on and thinking about it myself, I believe that I have finally reconciled my existential identity with the law’s actual relation to social change.

My sense of the world, including my place in it, will always be a work in progress. But at this point of my life, when I am closer to reality than I have ever been, my understanding is this: the law, either through direct representation or impact litigation, is just one tool out of many (such as organization, education, and activism) that make up and must make up a holistic strategy for meaningful and lasting social change. Law school, with the bulk of its daily reading and class discussion revolving around the nuanced dissection and application of appellate cases, is a bizarrely specialized mode of education that is only directly relevant towards a narrow set of practice areas, most prominently appellate litigation and commercial transactional work, at least at Columbia.

Amidst law school’s daily grind, so agonizingly removed from the communities I wish to serve, I find the following recognitions revitalizing: My time spent here is a temporary period of my life. Although law school is all-encompassing, it is not all-defining. All of us came here for different reasons, but I am attending law school in order to gain some of the education, skills, and networks I need to go back to the communities I wish to serve and do so the best as I can as a lawyer. While the education here is not perfectly structured to teach me the type of multi-faceted, community-based lawyering I hope to do when I graduate, I am seeking out and participating in experiential learning opportunities to compensate. Along the way, I am also making lifelong friends, acquiring life-changing experiences, and learning and growing in ways that I could have never anticipated.

Although the disabusal of my naiveté was emotionally jarring, it too was part of why I came here in the first place: to learn how to become an effective agent of social change. Part of that education requires deeply internalizing the fact that the law is a piece of that project, not a panacea. More fundamentally, being a truly happy human being requires realizing that while I may have a purpose, I should not be emotionally attached to one image, either professional or personal, of carrying it out. Rather, I should fully engage with what is happening around me every day and authentically grow from it in natural, organic, and unplanned ways. A year ago, I came to law school hoping to be a lawyer for social change. Now I have come to terms with the fact that I can still create social change, though not necessarily solely as a lawyer. And that’s fine. Indeed, that’s necessary—both for society’s benefit and my personal happiness.

One day I presume I will look back on this period of my life, as I do now with periods before this one. As I do, I hope that I look at this present moment with the same attitude—slight bemusement at my earnest grappling with the existential implications of an uncompromising reality, but also lived vindication of the inchoate hopes embodied within my sincere efforts to reconcile the two.

They say that you can never connect the dots looking forward; only backwards. But if the past is any indication, I dare predict that I will continue growing in unexpected ways that, although might not conform to a professional or personal image of what I had previously envisioned for myself, will practically act most fully in the service of my overriding, unwavering, and life-affirming purpose—changing society for the better.

[Note: This piece was was later published in the Morningside Muckraker as “Learning How to Lawyer for Social Change as a 2L“]


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