SCOTUS Justice Samuel Alito recently delivered a lecture for Pepperdine University at its “Annual Law School Dinner” on March 8. Justice Alito touched on a variety of topics, including the personal challenges he has faced while serving on the Court. I appreciate his candor; it’s nice to know that someone up there might struggle with a decision from time to time—whatever his or her doctrinal persuasion.
But I was most struck by a comment he made while addressing the prospect of graduating from law school in today’s frustrating legal market: “Our country needs lawyers.” Like most people, I tend to have an inflated sense of self-importance, so I agreed. But I think Justice Alito is right. Our country does need lawyers—but why? To that end, here’s the first post in a three-part series to justify the existence of lawyers.
The world’s full of ambiguity, but it works better on clarity. We leave the hazy stuff to lawyers so everyone else can get on with life in black-and-white.
There are many different types of lawyers, but one thing tends to bind us all together: We deal with stuff for which there is rarely a true “right” or “wrong” answer (See—I told you; I couldn’t even bring myself to type the words without quotations.) We all spend our time trying to define words like “justice,” “equity,” and “good faith.” And it’s not just the usual hard words—even a word like “sandwich” is subject to multiple shades of meaning. (Would a burrito, taco, or hamburger meet the definition?)
Academic people think about these things, too, but what separates lawyers from academics is that people actually depend on lawyers to bring clarity. That is, ordinary people regularly have their families or fortunes on the line, hanging on the interpretation of word. To those people, it’s not an academic exercise; it’s real life. If you’ve put a hamburger shop in a strip mall that doesn’t allow anyone to sell sandwiches, the true meaning of “sandwich” just became very real. Your livelihood is at stake and hinges on the meaning of “sandwich.”
But we really don’t want people walking around life wandering whether something is a sandwich or not. And we definitely don’t want a bunch of people walking around whose definition of sandwich depends on who hired them. I don’t want engineers trying think about the “totality of the circumstances” for whether to build a bridge. Teaching a classroom full of kids requires neither strict nor intermediate scrutiny.
I’m not saying that perplexing questions don’t loom over nearly every human endeavor; they do. Nothing is simple, really. But we get to leave the complicated stuff to the lawyers so everyone else can get on with life.
And for that we can all be thankful.