At First, I thought this was a parody from the old days of The National Lampoon, or perhaps a contemporary send up from The Onion. Then I realized it was the genuine article. I don’t usually pick on the prima facie, to use a legal term, disadvantaged–it’s just too easy–but this time I couldn’t resist. You’ll see what I mean.
The backdrop of this article is the intense backlash against the supposed psychic trauma of law students caused by the grand jury no bill decisions in the Brown (Ferguson, MO) and Garner (Staten Island) cases. The author of this little missive is one William Desmond, a third year Harvard Law student, and an Editor of the vaunted Harvard Law Review. I’m sure readers recall that Barack
Obama was appointed President of the Law Review—the first Black so honored–earning such distinctions as never actually writing an article. Mr. Desmond certainly seems to be following in those hallowed, though nearly invisible footsteps, though he may have been better off following Obama’s example and the advice of a truly great lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who said:
It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.
Mr. Desmond argues that the collective whining and mental faux-distress of law students is not a sign of weakness, but strength. In other news, the Pope has just been elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. From Op-Ed: Delaying Exams Is Not a Request from ‘Coddled Millennials’:
Over the last week, much has been said about law students’ petitioning for exam extensions in light of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers. Students at Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, Georgetown University Law Center and several other schools requested that their administrations allow extensions on final exams for students who have been confronting the aftermath of the recent failed grand jury indictments of the officers who killed the unarmed black men.
In response, opponents of exam extensions have declared that to grant these requests would be a disservice to the students. Law students, they argue, must learn how to engage critically with the law in the face of intense adversity. Drawing comparisons to events surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and other times of intense turmoil, these opponents portray today’s law students as coddled millennials using traumatic events as an excuse for their inability to focus on a three-hour exam. In essence, law students are being told to grow up and learn how to focus amidst stress and anxiety—like ‘real’ lawyers must do.
Yes. “…coddled millennials using traumatic events as an excuse for their inability to focus on a three-hour exam.” That sums it up nicely. Desmond would have been wise to stop at that.
Speaking as one of those law students, I can say that this response is misguided: Our request for exam extensions is not being made from a position of weakness, but rather from one of strength and critical awareness.
Cue hysterical, uncontrollable laughter…
Although over the last few weeks many law students have experienced moments of total despair, minutes of inconsolable tears and hours of utter confusion, many of these same students have also spent days in action—days of protesting, of organizing meetings, of drafting emails and letters, and of starting conversations long overdue. We have been synthesizing decades of police interactions, dissecting problems centuries old, and exposing the hypocrisy of silence.
Keep in mind that Desmond is describing the students attending elite law schools, people who will be offered jobs in the highest levels of finance, government and law. Yet, these future stalwarts of the law, faced with a couple of decisions, decisions in which they had no part and no stake, decisions that will not affect them or the law in any way, are reduced to “total despair,” “inconsolable tears” and “utter confusion?” I can certainly understand how such fragile and irrational people might be utterly confused. One can only imagine how they might handle someone nearby issuing a bit of flatulence. Perhaps a paper cut would fling them into shock and unconsciousness? If they truly want to climb out of their utter confusion about why the Michael Brown case was decided in a manner so incomprehensible and traumatic to them, may I humbly suggest reading my series of articles on that case, available here?
I’ve never attended law school, but I’m reasonably sure students don’t have time to synthesize decades of police interactions, let alone dissect centuries-old problems having nothing to do with their curriculum. And having never attended law school, I confess to not having a clue what “exposing the hypocrisy of silence” might mean. Perhaps its an esoteric concept of contract law? Silence about what? I always thought one had to actually speak a few words to be hypocritical about anything. Interpretive dance, for example, is not widely known as a primary means of expressing an opinion about hypocrisy, nor is silence. Fortunately, Mr. Desmond is willing to further our educations about what we’ve been missing.
I have seen the psychological trauma brought on by disillusionment with our justice system send some law students into a period of depression. After all, every death of an unarmed youth at the hands of law enforcement is a tragedy. The hesitancy to recognize the validity of these psychic effects demonstrates that, in addition to conversations on race, gender and class, our nation is starving for a genuine discussion about mental health. But to reduce our calls for exam extensions to mere cries for help exhibits a failure to understand the powerful images of die-ins and the booming chants of protestors disrupting the continuation of business as usual in cities across the country.
Desmond’s disillusionment with the justice system is nothing more than a matter of disagreement with the decisions not to indict police officers in two cases. Has no one at Harvard Law taught him, in three years, that he’s not going to win them all? Because I’m hesitant to buy the specious assertion that whiney college kiddies are psychologically traumatized and suffering truly debilitating “psychic effects,” this demonstrates that America is “starving” for “genuine discussions” about race, gender, class and mental health? I’ll concede concern for the mental health of people like Desmond, but no more.
As to images of expensively garbed, self-important young twits festooned with the most expensive consumer electronics money can buy prostrating themselves here and there, blocking foot and vehicular traffic and yelling slogans about things that never actually happened, I suspect few people that have to work for a living, that have to be reliable, are impressed, or anxious for the “conversations” Desmond seeks. More than likely, the only conversations they’d appreciate would result in police officers dragging those annoying twerps out of the road and into jail, the better for them to apply their prodigious legal knowledge and analytical skills.
Where some commentators see weakness or sensitivity, perhaps they should instead see strength—the strength to know when our cups of endurance have run over and when the time for patience has ended. Perhaps they should instead see courage—the courage to look our
peers in the eyes and uncomfortably ask them to bear these burdens of racism and classism that we have together inherited from generations past. We have taken many exams before, but never have we done this. We are scared, but no longer will we be spectators to injustice.
Their cups runneth over. Oh dear. Let me see if I understand what passes for logic at the Harvard School of Law. Because they are so strong and courageous, they will be bearing burdens of racism and classism inherited from past generations, and the bearing of these burdens, done by frightened law students, requires the postponement of exams because that’s courageous and strong? Hmm. I always thought civil rights pioneers–people with experience bearing actual burdens–were made of sterner stuff. It also seems a bit of a stretch to believe people attending Harvard Law are bearing any generations-old burden of race and class. No wonder Harvard tuition runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. One obviously can’t obtain that kind of high-level, cutting edge reasoning for less, or at just any state college.
Our focus and critical thinking are at an all-time peak while the importance of our textbooks is at a low.
Sorry young Mr. Desmond. You’ve proved conclusively you have that exactly backward.
It is not that law students are incapable of handling their exams. It is that we are unwilling to remove ourselves, even for a few days, from this national conversation. As future practitioners, professors, judges and policymakers, we have all been trained not only in the faithful application of the law but also in the critical examination of its effectiveness. And by our analysis, responsible members of the legal community can no longer defend our criminal justice system as exemplifying fair process when that system so frequently produces the same unjust result—life drained from an unarmed black body by a barrage of government-issued bullets.
It now falls to me, a former police officer, to explain what Harvard’s professors apparently have not. (1) No one who has actually had to make their way in the world wants or needs to hear what a few snot-nosed, coddled, narcissistic delinquents attending Harvard have to say about this or any other topic. (2) Such self-imagined analytical skills demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the law and of reality. (3) The criminal justice system is not shooting anyone. This simpering angst is the product of one case in which a violent, drug-addled thug was shot during the commission of multiple felonies–including assault on a police officer–by a police officer acting fully within the law. (4) Obviously, these critical examination skills do not extend so far as to actually reading the evidence in the Ferguson case.
We recognize that this is a moment for change. If not us, then who?
Well, considering that in the Ferguson case, for example, the system worked exactly as it was designed to work, how about “nobody?” And what sort of change? Warping the criminal justice system to remove due process protections for white policemen?
For most of us, we know that if we get lower grades this semester, this cost will have been worth the importance and privilege of joining a national movement to fundamentally reform this country’s approach to law enforcement and criminal justice. But just because we are willing to pay this price does not mean we should have to.
Well of course not! You’re so precious you should be excused from the consequences of blowing off your studies and assignments whenever you, in your boundless wisdom, importance and indispensable social relevance, consider it proper. I’m sure that if you’re ever employed as a lawyer—and considering your demonstration of intellect, fortitude and reliability in this little essay, that’s unlikely—your employers and clients will have no problem with your having little fits and failing to do what is expected of you whenever it strikes your fancy. The reality is the “national movement” will lurch onward, burning, looting, assaulting and blocking traffic quite well without you. In fact, if you found yourself surrounded in protest by some of the real thugs out there, you’d probably be introduced to the nobility of the mob by getting assaulted and robbed.
The most striking irony behind this criticism comes from the constant refrain we have heard over the years from every ‘real’ lawyer who has offered us a job, as well as sometimes from these same critics, about how detached legal education has become from the realities of legal practice. Our requests for exam extensions are requests for our faculties and administrations to recognize that this movement is our legal education—that when we march, when we advocate, when we demand accountability and action we are employing the analytical skills and legal knowledge that we have learned in our law school classrooms far more than we would be if we responded to a hypothetical exam prompt.
Well of course. What do “real” lawyers, offering sanctimonious adolescents jobs, know? Just a hint: they know they have to produce for their clients. They can’t simply choose not to show up in court. They can’t choose not to prepare and file briefs and motions. They can’t march, advocate and demand accountability and action when there is work to be done, because if they do that, they (A) won’t eat, and (B) will be disbarred. That would, obviously, give them the freedom to be as socially conscious as Mr. Desmond and his pals, but they’ll have to grow up, pass the bar, and find a legal job someday first.
I somehow suspect that “real” lawyers are somewhat less than fully impressed with the idea that marching, lying on the ground, blocking traffic and shouting “hands up; don’t shoot” as a symbol of something that never happened, are revealing of the application of analytical skill and legal knowledge. Perhaps at Harvard Law School, professors are willing to accept video of students protesting in lieu of demonstrated competence and learning, but young Mr. Desmond and like-minded precious should not imagine that will be accepted as coin of the realm off campus, unless of course they go to work for the Department of Justice, but that’s another article.
Each year as classes of law students enter and exit our nation’s legal institutions we are told the same thing: You are the future of the law. Well, the future is now.
With the kind of writing, analytical and persuasive abilities Mr. Desmond has demonstrated here, I have one more bit of learning to impart, something he and those like him must know upon graduation as they march resolutely into their bright futures. Repeat after me: “you want fries with that?”