When I served as Associate Counsel to the Speaker of the New York State Assembly as an attorney only a few years out of law school, the topics on which I advised were insurance and racing and wagering. At first glance, there could be no greater difference between those areas of law. What in the world could excess line or health insurance have in common with people watching horse races in fancy hats in Saratoga, or millennials playing games of chance at a bachelor or bachelorette party during a fun weekend with their former college roommates?
Upon further reflection, the topics are fundamentally similar, and their significance resonates with the experiences of law students. Both insurance and racing and wagering involve the premise of individuals pooling their money together, while hoping that to paraphrase the best-selling series The Hunger Games, the odds will be ever in their favor. Now, how does this relate to your experiences as a student at HLS intent on establishing a career in the legal field? The overall theme of hope that unites both these avenues of law is one of utmost importance to law students universally.
Hope is one of the most powerful human emotions. It is the power of hope alone that caused throngs of people to line up in the recent ground-breaking Mega Millions lottery sale, although the odds of winning were so negligible that if you had a “stack of pennies the height of the Empire State Building,” you would “need to buy 1,000 lottery tickets to have the same probability of winning the Powerball jackpot as you would have to pick the one penny out of the stack the height of the Empire State Building.” As Charles Dickens wrote, “such is hope, Heaven’s own gift to struggling mortals pervading like some subtle essence from the skies, all things, good and bad; as universal as death, and more infectious than disease!”
Let us compare your experiences as a law student to insurance and racing and wagering. People join an insurance pool, hoping that the odds will favor them and that they will never see the return on the money that they invest, since it is better to live longer than to have a wealthy beneficiary (that is, unless you are the beneficiary). Conversely, people bet money on games of chance by putting money in a pool, hoping that they will beat the odds and wind up with a windfall. Gamblers hope. The insured hope. Law students and lawyers hope. In fact, if I had to state one word upon which the field of law is predicated, I would use the word “hope.”
The life of a law student can be undeniably stressful. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the daily grind. Law school is exhausting, with seemingly little short-term “rewards” other than student loans, piles of laundry that seem to perpetually accumulate, and your significant other who continually complains that you never write and you never call. There is always one more case to brief, one more outline to read, one more class to prepare for, and one more assignment to conquer.
Yet, law students everywhere are inspired to persevere because of the hope that all of those countless hours spent earning the degree and immersing themselves in the practice of law will eventually prove to be worth the effort. They continue to hope that the light at the end of the professional tunnel is the ability to transform into the caliber of attorneys that they went to law school to become. Law students know that future clients will come to them because lawyers are essentially peddlers of hope. Apart from business transactions, people tend to approach lawyers often when they are at the most miserable, vulnerable points in their lives, when life gets them down and all seems hopeless. They see lawyers when they get divorced and are battling for the custody of their cherished children, when they are injured in devastating accidents, when they are arrested and frightened, and when they sue relatives over blood-boiling will contests. It is the lawyer’s role not only to address the legal matters, but to be there for the client and restore the client’s hope that he or she is a professional who cares and is looking into the issues. It is often said that what lawyers sell is their time. That may be true, but what they often dispense is also hope, as people put their trust in them that they will ultimately be vindicated through the lawyer’s representation. What a wondrous responsibility for someone to have such faith in another!
To my friends at HLS, the first step in succeeding as a future attorney is to realize that the current stage of your professional career is challenging. Don’t be hard on yourself. Recognize that the beginning of your legal career is also a rewarding time as you incrementally equip yourself to be a trained and skillful advocate. Keep your hope alive and nurture it despite whatever frustrations may come your way. It is easy to lose your confidence, especially if this is the first time that you find yourself intimidated by your classmates, but know that the hope that you had when applying to law school that you would be a success will sustain you in your journey to becoming an attorney. Recognize that with hard work and effort, you have it within you to succeed, even if success may not come as soon as you would like.
One of the most beautiful book titles is President Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope. Never underestimate the value of hope. Hoping truly is an audacious, brave action. Rather than merely wishing for something to come true, the act of hope means having the faith that there will be a possibility, no matter how slight, that things will work out in a certain way. Hoping means mustering the courage to be emotionally invested in an action. Hope is bold. Hope is visionary. Hope looks as circumstances not as they are, but as they have the potential to become. Hope is willful.
Law is a hopeful profession when contextualized. Lawyers refuse to accept society as it is. They refuse to settle for the injustices of the world. Lawyers are the visionaries who can view society normatively, and have the courage to use the legal system to make this world a better place for ourselves and our future children. It is lawyers who will spend time on cases against sometimes ostensibly insurmountable odds, doing research, filing papers, and appealing cases when lower courts don’t rule favorably, simply because lawyers hope to be able to take a stand for the causes that they believe in because they have the hope that circumstances can actually change.
One of my mentors, Fred, is an accomplished lawyer and one of the most fundamentally decent human beings I have the pleasure of knowing. As I have been graduated from law school only less than five years ago, I value the mentorship of someone with his legal acumen and hard-earned experiences gained from decades of practicing in the field. We ended up having a conversation and passed by a lemonade stand whose proprietors were pint-size girls selling cups of lemonade that probably could have been confused for cleaning fluid on the basis of how unappetizing the lemonade looked. I shook my head, smiled, and continued the conversation. Fred stopped and chastised me.
“Always buy the lemonade,” he said, plunking down two quarters and buying a cup for each of us. As he explained later, “this probably tastes as good as it looks, and I’m not sure whether I want to drink it. But I didn’t just buy lemonade there. I bought hope. Hope is the cheapest thing to buy, but it is the purchase that lasts the longest.”
Now, I’ve learned many things from legal mentors over the years. I’ve learned about submitting briefs, about maintaining a work/life balance, about drafting legislation. But as a relatively young attorney, that lesson was one that resonated the most with me, because its implications are the most far-reaching.
It is no surprise that Passover and Easter, which are among the two most observed holy days in the Jewish and Christian traditions, are both holidays that epitomize hope. Even people in both religions who consider themselves to be irreligious often attend celebrations for those holidays that, respectively, celebrate redemption from slavery and the hope of freedom, and the hope of resurrection after destruction. This is because hope is a universal need.
At the end of a gloomy Cambridge winter, there comes the hope of Spring eternal, of joy and fulfillment after dreariness and bleakness. And so, as a law student at HLS, you must remember that as a future lawyer, you represent more than legal knowledge; you are a beacon of hope for a society that looks to you for guidance.
Here’s hoping that you have a wonderful semester.
Deborah Beth Medows is a Senior Attorney in the Division of Legal Affairs at the New York State Department of Health, where she delivered the 2015 CLE on Ethics. She has additionally served as an Associate Counsel to the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and as an Assistant Counsel to the New York State Legislative Bill Drafting Commission. She edited a written symposium through Harvard Law School’s Journal of Law and Technology’s Digest, delivered various legal presentations, published a number of articles in various law journals, and serves as a mentor to law students. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Latest posts by Deborah Beth Medows (see all)
- Thinking Like a Lawyer - August 27, 2016
- Insurance, Gambling, and Law Students: Pools of Hope - March 28, 2016
- What Every Harvard Law School Student Should Know About Deciding What Kind of Law to Practice - January 26, 2016