Law and the Politics of Meaning

Article excerpt

I'm an attorney working in a legal services office in the South Bronx. My primary practice area is representing parents whose children are involved with the foster-care system.

The kinds of questions raised before this forum have been in the minds of both our most eminent jurists and those for whom exposure to the law was only a passing stage in the development of a humanistic philosophy.

As Mohandas Gandhi stated in his autobiography:

I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men's hearts. I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. This lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromise of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby--not even money; certainly not my soul.

So many people are attempting to address the kinds of questions that are being addressed in this forum today--in preparation for this talk I reviewed articles and books that spoke in many different paradigms--the critical legal studies movement, feminist jurisprudence, the legal storytelling and empathy in the law movements, the law and context and law and policy movements, movements that I would suspect many practicing lawyers are unfamiliar with.

Yet, there is something about having this conversation at this conference, in the context of an effort to engage society on multiple levels around the concept of a politics of meaning, an effort that I have partaken in, that makes having this discussion here, and me being a spokesperson for that discussion as part of that larger effort, something qualitatively different; for the most common objection I hear to legal reform proposals is that it would require a differently functioning national community for those reforms to be effective, and my response can now be: We're envisioning a world where change is occurring on multiple levels in tandem, so that we need not speak of legal reform in isolation from other change, though we will be implementing these changes in a world in flux that has not yet fully absorbed a politics of meaning, and in that sense the reforms are risky ones.

The question at this panel today is how do we reform legal institutions in ways that address the concerns of those who feel disillusioned with the legal system, with lawyers as representatives of that system, or with their own professional lives if they are attorneys. This is a discussion not just about institutional reform, but about the effect of legal practice on the souls of practitioners.

I am part of the group that defines ourselves as public-interest lawyers, since I work in a law office that represents indigent people and is funded by the government. We public-interest lawyers tend to separate ourselves from the rest of legal practitioners because of what we define as our social consciousness, and because of the ends we are trying to achieve. Yet, not all public-interest legal work is designed at ending oppressive or discriminatory practices, or at protecting against arbitrary or neglectful governmental behavior, and even if much of it is, sometimes public interest lawyers are simply representing private individuals with very private goals who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Yet, we practice in the same courts, and often in the same ways, that other lawyers practice; and our goal, as theirs, is to obtain our clients' ends at all costs. So, while I honor the work and commitment of public-interest lawyers in our struggle against poverty, injustice, and discrimination, I propose that we public-interest lawyers reintegrate ourselves into the rubric of the legal profession and talk about repairing our own practice in the same ways that lawyers in other parts of the profession need to repair theirs.

Legal culture reinforces thinking that equates justice for one's own client with justice per se, with "justice" being defined as the course which benefits one's own client. …