A telling reminder that what we do as lawyers matters

By Rebecca Bromwich Web Only

Many times, over the tinkling of glasses at dinner parties, I have heard lawyers reference the quote from William Shakespeare that runs ''The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'' The line comes from Henry VI and is uttered by Dick the Butcher, a supporter of the dissident Jack Cade, who supposed that if he disturbed the rule of law, he could seize the throne. Lawyers often rely on this quotation in speeches that present grand narratives about the important role of lawyers in warding off despotism.

Reference to this quotation has often felt unduly self-laudatory.  Praise for lawyers as defenders of democracy can ring discordant with the contemporary realities of the rising cost of legal services and other barriers to access to justice.

That isn’t to say that lawyers don’t deserve some recognition for what they do. The practice of law is a tough slog in many areas, and the machinery of the administration of justice, and the cultural baggage and business forms of the legal profession, can make work as a lawyer difficult indeed.

Issues with burnout, long working hours and mental health issues in the legal profession are rampant.  CBA leaders, like Michele Hollins, and Orlando Da Silva, have helped fight the stigma surrounding talking openly about the ways in which lawyers struggle under the stresses and burdens of their work. I have personally witnessed the mental health leaves and departures of many good friends and colleagues, from the practice of law. I have even struggled myself with the challenges of raising four children while working as a lawyer.

In the last 10 years, I have taught hundreds of law students.  At times, I have wondered whether it is really wise to encourage bright young students to become lawyers when I have felt such ambivalence about doing so, given the high attrition rates from the legal profession, the too-frequent sexual harassment and discrimination matched with significantly less frequent formal complaints, the challenges associated with balancing work as a lawyer with family, and even law’s appallingly high suicide rate.

As was elegantly pointed out in   a recent New York Times editorial, the nascent Trump administration in Washington has provided a case study in how lawyers may indeed actually do what we grandly claim we do:  we might just afford a nonviolent defense against tyranny that is fundamental to maintaining the social order.   With the reply to Trump’s all-caps “SEE YOU IN COURT” tweet offered by Washington Attorney General Ferguson in this quite wonderful video clip, and through the sustained efforts of American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, as well as lawyers making arguments before the Courts in the Travel Ban case, we are seeing the unfolding of a compelling, and crucial reminder that there are political, social and personal benefits to be derived by the public and by lawyers ourselves, that offset the costs of work as lawyer.

In the midst of the din from our southern neighbour, I feel more confident and suddenly far less conflicted when I teach students seeking to become lawyers.  Problems remain in the legal profession, and they still need to be addressed. However, while there is a great deal to be concerned, and even much to be reviled, about the direction of the new U.S. administration, we at least have it to thank for providing the public and lawyers alike with a telling reminder that what we do as lawyers matters, and that there are essential benefits to practicing law that counterbalance its costs.  

For reminding lawyers that we are badass warrior poets, to the Trump administration, I therefore offer a word of thanks.

Rebecca Bromwich is the author of  Looking for Ashley: Re-Reading What the Smith Case Reveals about the Governance of Girls, Mothers and Families in Canada. The author's views are her own.

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