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All Lawyers Are Good People; Or, No More Shark Jokes!

This is a talk I gave at a one-day Northern California RC Lawyers’ Workshop, 9/23/92.

Point 1: Lawyers get bashed a lot in this society. We don’t deserve it. All lawyers are good people.

Point 2: We are all “real lawyers.”


Studies of first-year students show that most people enter this profession because they want to help other people. This is part of our inherent nature as human beings.

Law school and the experience of practicing law is very difficult for us. For us women, going to law school took a lot of courage because it was going against our internalized oppression—and also, we were excited about taking ourselves that seriously. But when we got there, we got hit with a lot of distress, including a heavy dose of men’s oppression.

We were told that to be a “real lawyer” we have to be like men: hide your feelings (or even better, get rid of them completely), pretend you always know everything, become very isolated and competitive with everyone around you, put work first and human values like families, fun, social change at the bottom of your list of priorities. Of course, men aren’t really like this either—but this painful conditioning starts at such a young age that by the time they get to law school most of them look like this is how they really are. Or at least they’re able to fake it. Ouch.

I do want to acknowledge that there were some good things about being a woman in a male-dominated profession. This experience has pushed me in ways I would never have gone in if I’d chosen a female-dominated profession, such as social work. It’s forced me to think on my feet, to keep thinking and speaking under attack, to take myself seriously, to realize that I am as smart as men.

But this conditioning has also taken its toll on me. I noticed this recently when I was supervising a law student intern who was upset that she had had to cross-examine a batterer on the witness stand, with no preparation. My first reaction, which luckily I did not share out loud, was, “So what? What do you expect? I didn’t have any training either—that’s just how it is.” Then I caught myself and responded with sympathy that she had had to undergo that scary experience without proper training.

Part of law school conditioning is learning to look okay when really you’re terrified and feel stupid. This is partly male oppression (“Never let them see you sweat—if you show any vulnerability, you’re dead”) and partly middle-class pretense (“Everything’s okay”).

We also get heavy doses of racism, classism, and general hopelessness in law school. We find out it’s not cool to be idealistic—we’re supposed to be cynical. We find out that the reasons many laws are the way they are is due to the distress of legislatures, judges, and juries, and the many oppressions which are institutionalized into the legal system. We find out that there are very few jobs in law doing anything remotely human, or even interesting. This is discouraging.

Then we go through the inhuman hazing process called the bar, and enter the “real world” or practicing law.


In this world, we’re supposed to act the way we learned to in law school: cutthroat, willing to do anything for money; giving up our dreams of how we want to practice law; giving up on having fun, three-dimensional lives outside the law with activities like traveling, having a family, exercising, participating in the arts, working for social change. This is what our society labels a “real lawyer.” No human being would ever want to be like that.

Over the last twelve years, many people have told me that I don’t seem like a “real lawyer” to them. Anybody else have that experience? This was supposed to be a compliment, and for a while I unawarely colluded with lawyers’ oppression by agreeing with the speaker that I was “different” from all those other lawyers out there. But in the last few years, I’ve come to see that this singling out some people as “real lawyers” and others as not is divisive and untrue. It’s another way of pitting us against each other, and holding up an unreal stereotype about what “real lawyers” are. Now, when people tell me this, I reply, “Well, this is what a real lawyer is like. All lawyers are just as warm, funny, caring, and good as I am.”

I used to think it was just me and my friends who didn’t like the traditional practice of law. But the more I read the California Lawyer, the more it’s clear that there is widespread unhappiness—I think a recent poll found 80% of lawyers in this state would change jobs if they could, but they aren’t trained for anything else and have high enough debts or high enough overhead that they can’t afford to just quit.

It’s painful to all of us to be forced into such an inhuman role.


There’s a reason why we’re conditioned to be so inhuman. Lawyers play a particular role in our society. As part of the middle class, we are supposed to identify with members of the owning class—we are supposed to think that our interests are the same as theirs, rather than with the working class. If we came from working-class backgrounds, we’re supposed to pretend we didn’t, and pass for middle class.

And as members of the middle class, we’re supposed to identify with members of the owning class—we are supposed to think that our interests are the same as theirs, rather than with the working-class backgrounds, we’re supposed to pretend we didn’t, and pass for middle class.

And as members of the middle class, we’re supposed to keep the entire system in place, with the owning class reaping the benefits of everyone else’s labor. But as lawyers, we get an even more intense does of this than most other members of the middle class: our profession is completely identified with the current political/economic system. We get blamed for the system’s corruption and oppressiveness and its complete unworkability. We are seen as responsible for creating it and maintaining it.

Lawyers’ oppression is also similar to the way Jewish oppression works: historically, Jews have been allowed to be visible members of the middle class. They have been forced into playing the role of the agents of the owning class, most of whom are non-Jews. This is convenient for the owning class, most of whom are non-Jews. This is convenient for the owning class, because when things get rough politically and economically and the working class is ready to revolt, the owning class can point to the Jews and make them scapegoats, with pogroms, holocausts, etc. This happened in 1492 in Spain, has happened over and over in Europe for centuries, and there are elements of this happening in the U.S. today.

Lawyers are also scapegoated; as the economic system crumbles more and more, we are attacked more and more viciously for supposedly creating this system and also for not being able to solve its problems. We try, hoping that if we could just figure out the perfect lawsuit, or get the perfect law passed, then somehow the system would work again. But of course there is no lawsuit or statute that will save the current system. And that’s probably good, since the system is so hurtful to everyone that it needs to go.


I was talking with Marsha Hunter, the International Liberation Reference Person for lawyers in RC, a few days ago, and she pointed out an additional piece that gets hard for us as lawyers and Co-Counselors. She said it’s like parents’ oppression: as RCers we are keenly aware of what the world could and should be like and also, therefore, keenly aware of how far short of that we fall.


So what are some solutions?

First, we have sessions.

We know as Co-Counselors that it’s important to counsel about areas where we feel discouraged, angry, hopeless, and discharge those feelings before we are able to think clearly about what to do. Of course, we don’t have to be completely free of distress before we start acting.

Second, act against our internalized oppression as lawyers.

I’ve recently decided never again to do anything hard alone. A few weeks ago, I was on a half-hour national TV talks how, where I was supposed to debate the issue of marital rape with two hostile opponents. The day I was asked to do it, I immediately called around among my closest counselors until I found someone who could meet me at the studio ahead of time to give me time in the women’s bathroom, beam at me during the show, and give me more time afterward. I was very proud of myself—after years of counseling on ending my isolation and asking for help, I was clear that I was not going to do this difficult thing alone! This is an especially good direction for laywers.

Third, organize.

Think about this problem with other people. Ask other lawyers why they went to law school, what they’d really love to do as lawyers if they could, what a rational legal system would look like. Ask non-lawyers what they think about how the legal system should work.

Figure out ways to use cases or legislation to organize large groups of people around a useful, rational program. Even if that program is mostly pointing out how corrupt the system is, that may be helpful in itself. And if it’s showing the way toward a better system, that’s even better.

I have been working with battered women for years, mostly helping them get restraining orders. I’ve used this experience as grounding for doing policy work, including writing a benchguide for California criminal court judges on how to handle divorce cases, which was published by the California judges’ training group and is used in their periodic trainings; writing a California prosecutor’s manual, which is used at the state DA’s annual trainings; and co-writing two national curricula for judges—an issue paper and case digest for a national judges’ group. I’ve done lots of trainings for police, prosecutors, domestic violence advocates, attorneys, and judges. I’ve written many pieces of legislation and organized statewide support for them. I’ve used these opportunities to talk about sexism, racism, and classism, and to inspire the audience or reader to act powerfully in the interests of real justice.

This is a partial solution. However, the overall problem is obviously a societal-wide problem and it will require a societal-wide solution. While we can create some partial individual solutions, such as working part-time, doing public interest work, doing pro bono work that is meaningful to us, or even leaving the profession, in the long run the entire economic and legal system must be restructured so that it is supportive of human beings. I don’t know what that will look like, but I do know that people who are able to discharge old hurts along the way will have an invaluable contribution to make. The world around us is hungry for our vision and leadership.

Nancy Lemon
Berkeley, California, USA

Last modified: 2014-10-07 17:43:53+00