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All Lawyers Are Good People Or 'No More Shark Jokes'

This is a talk I gave at two Northern California RC

Lawyers' Workshops, in 1992 and 1997:

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 law students show that most people enter the legal profession because they want to help people. This is part of our inherent nature as human beings.

Law school and the experience of practicing law have been difficult for us. For women, going to law school took courage because it went against our internalized oppression. We were excited about taking ourselves that seriously, but when we got to law school, 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 would have to be like men: hide our feelings, pretend we always know everything, become isolated and competitive with everyone around us, and put work first and human values like families, fun, and social change at the bottom of our list of priorities. Of course men aren't really like this, but they get this painful conditioning starting at such a young age that by the time they get to law school many of them look like this is how they really are.

Good things about being a woman in a male-dominated profession are that it has forced me to think on my feet, to keep thinking and speaking under attack, to take myself seriously, and to realize I am as smart as men.

The conditioning has also taken its toll on me. Recently, a law student intern I supervise 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 sympathized that she'd had to undergo that scary experience without proper training.

Law-school conditioning to look okay when you're terrified and feeling stupid is not only male oppression ("Never let them see you sweat-if you show any vulnerability, you're dead"), but also partly middle-class pretense ("Everything's okay").

We 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 many laws are the way they are because of the distress of legislatures, judges, and juries, and because of the many oppressions which are institutionalized into the legal system. We find out that there are few jobs that involve doing anything remotely human, or even interesting. This is discouraging.

Then we go through the inhuman hazing process called the bar exam and enter the "real world" of practicing law.


In the world of legal practice, we're supposed to act the way we learned to in law school-be cutthroat, do anything for money, give up our dreams of how we want to practice law, give up on having fun, and give up having three-dimensional lives outside the law practice that include things like traveling, having a family, exercising, participating in the arts, and working for social change. This is what our society labels a "real lawyer." No wonder no one I know feels that she or he is 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." This was supposed to be a compliment, and for a while I unawarely colluded with lawyers' oppression by agreeing that I was "different." In the last few years I've come to see that 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. It holds up an unreal stereotype. Now when people tell me this, I say, "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 my friends and me who didn't like the traditional practice of law. But the more I read TheCalifornia Lawyer, the more it's clear that there is widespread unhappiness. I think a recent poll found eighty percent of lawyers in this state would change jobs if they could. They can't because they aren't trained for anything else and have high enough debts or overhead that they can't afford to quit.

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


There's a reason 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 the owning class. We are supposed to think our interests are those of the owning class rather than those of the working class. If we came from working-class backgrounds, we're supposed to pretend we didn't and pass for middle-class.

As lawyers, we're supposed to keep in place the entire system of the owning class reaping the benefits of everyone else's labor. We get an intense dose of this identification with the current political and economic system. Then we get blamed for the system's corruption, oppressiveness, and complete unworkability. We are seen as responsible for creating it and maintaining it.

Lawyers' oppression is similar in some ways to Jewish oppression. Historically, Jews have been encouraged to be visible members of the middle class. They have been forced into the role of agents of the owning class. 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. This results in pogroms, holocausts, etc.

Lawyers are also scapegoated. As the economic system crumbles, we are attacked more and more viciously for supposedly creating this system and 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, somehow the system would work again. But of course there is no lawsuit or statute that will save the current system. It is so hurtful that it needs to go.

Marsha Hunter, the International Liberation Reference Person for Lawyers in RC, pointed out another way it gets hard for us RC lawyers. 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 the solutions to this state of affairs?

First, have sessions about all of this.

We know as Co-Counselors that in areas where we feel discouraged, angry, or hopeless, it's important to discharge those feelings to be 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 talk show, where I was supposed to debate the issue of marital rape with two hostile opponents. As soon as I was asked to do it, I found a close counselor who could meet me at the studio and give me time in the women's bathroom before the show, beam at me during the show, and give me more time afterwards. I was not going to do this difficult thing alone! This is an especially good direction for lawyers.

Third, organize.

Think with other people about the situation for lawyers. Ask lawyers why they went to law school, what they'd really love to do as lawyers if they could, and 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 a case or legislation to organize a large group of people around auseful, rational program. Even if the result is just to point out how corrupt the system is, that may be helpful. Showing the way toward a better system is 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. I wrote a bench guide for California criminal court judges on how to handle domestic violence cases. It was published by the California judges' training group and is used in their periodic trainings. I wrote a prosecutors' manual which is used at the state district attorneys' annual trainings. I co-wrote two national curricula for judges and an issue paper and case digest for a national judges' group. I've trained lots of 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.

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 it 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,

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00