The sun will rise in the east every morning. We will have the opportunity to elect a new leader of our country every four years. Kanye West will say something dumb by the end of the year. Those are occurrences we naturally expect. But here’s something more unexpected: a letter from a middle schooler showing up on a law school dean’s desk.
The residual effects of the Great Recession, coupled with rising student debt and stagnant incomes –have all made many would-be law students hesitate before taking out a school loan. So you can imagine how shocked Dean Nick Allard of Brooklyn Law School was when he opened this letter in November.
For privacy purposes, let’s refer to the student as Greg. Greg’s letter had one request:
“I plan to study law and am inquiring about the majors you offer for this field. I am looking for a college with great advisory and counseling to help set me on the right path and direction to become a successful law student and someday a defense attorney.”
Whoa. Most eighth graders are filling their lockers with stolen bags of chips or passing notes that end with “check yes, no, or maybe.” Instead, Greg was seeking advice from a respected dean.
WHAT ATTICUS FINCH AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN HAVE IN COMMON
Despite receiving the letter about a year after it was sent, Allard replied on November 25. And the lessons he shared could be applied to an aspiring law student of any age. Allard began his response by citing some of his heroic fictional lawyer inspirations—Atticus Finch and Perry Mason. Yes, there is still a essence of romanticism in the law profession. The crux of Allard’s response to Greg came next and is a testament to Greg’s courage and drive.
“The simple answer is that to prepare to be a great lawyer: Study something you love hard, dig deep, and know it matters not what particular field of study you choose prior to law school. Any excellent intellectual grounding you acquire will serve the purpose. English, History, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science, or Music will open untold doors to you as a lawyer if that is who you want to become. The lawyer’s muscle—the brain—is the greatest tool known to mankind and you may sharpen that tool with hard work in any and all of the wide array of academic disciplines that the human intellect encompasses and pursues.”
Then Allard provided quotes from other attorneys in American history who were “a lot smarter” than him. Joseph Story spoke of the importance of searching the human heart and knowing the sources of passions for as many as possible. He also spoke of knowing the history and tendencies of humankind. Attorneys must know humankind. And that comes from learning, which often comes from reading. “And, Greg, reading is truly the key,” Allard points out in his return letter.
Allard cites President Abraham Lincoln: “If you wish to be a lawyer, attach no consequence to the place you are in, or the person you are with; but get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself.” Those are intense words for an eighth grader.
A WISE DECISION TO PURSUE
In a letter largely made up of an array of quotes from some of the country’s legal crackerjacks, Allard continued to offer wisdom through the voices of justices past. Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis said overcoming difficulties and struggles in academia and life will strengthen the mind and will of a person more than favorable conditions. And attorneys will fall on hard times. Another former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter, said being a great lawyer means reading great poetry and seeing paintings and listening to music and experiencing the “mysteries of the universe.” It is the unknown that reveals truths.
And finally, according to Allard, the final piece of becoming a great lawyer is communication. In particular, being able to communicate effectively and succinctly. Allard closes his letter to the now freshman in high school with a quote from Thomas Jefferson.
“Your resolution to apply to the study of the law is wise in my opinion … The study of the law is useful in a variety of points of view. It qualifies a man to be useful to himself, to his neighbors, and to the public…”
With a profession in flux, Allard says this is the time for everyone in the legal education community to consider two questions. Why should anyone study law? And how do you best prepare to study law. It might have taken an eighth grader to remind Allard of the importance of those questions. Nevertheless, Greg got a response that was probably more than he bargained for. Perhaps he will be the one quoted in future letters from deans to other aspiring law students.
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