'Why Can't We?'
Law school continued to discombobulate me. From day one, I was told, "There is no such thing as right and wrong." "All that matters is who makes the best argument." "Justice is subjective." "Truths are the product of perspective and thus can vary wildly." Fresh from covering concentration camps in Europe, I was quite sure that there was such a thing as right and wrong. Still, I did my best to submit to what at times felt like a cult. I had been told that the Kool Aid law school was serving would be good for me, but there were times I thought I might be allergic.
How many of you got through law school without experiencing an awful "Paper Chase moment"? Well, I very nearly escaped. It was not until the first day of my final semester in law school, the spring of my third year--long past the time that I should have learned to "think like a lawyer"--when I heard those feared words out of my professor's mouth: "Ms. Power, will you kindly state the case!" I nearly died. I had survived the siege of Sarajevo, but my heart raced, my tummy somersaulted and a voice inside my head tried to soothe me, "This can't be worse than Milosevic, this can't be worse than Milosevic." But it was.
The case was Spaulding v. Zimmerman. In a miracle among miracles, I happened to have actually read the thing. Back in the 1950s, there had been a car accident. A guy called John Zimmerman had rear-ended a 20-year-old named David Spaulding. Spaulding's ribs were broken and he suffered a concussion and some internal bleeding in the head. He sued Zimmerman for damages. Fairly straightforward. But controversy arose when Zimmerman contracted a doctor to examine Spaulding to gauge the gravity of the injuries. This doctor detected an aortal aneurism that might rupture and cause Spaulding's death. Spaulding was oblivious to his condition. Only Zimmerman and his lawyer possessed the vital, life-saving information.
My ethics professor asked me whether Zimmerman's lawyer had a duty to disclose what he knew of Spaulding's perilous medical condition, when nondisclosure could result in severe harm. I was confused by the question. I looked around at my classmates, assuming that they too would be surprised by the professor's line of inquiry. But they seemed unflustered.
"We're talking about an aneurism," I said simply. "Yes, I'm aware of that Ms. Power, but what should the defendant's lawyer do?" the professor asked. "Pardon me?" I asked, wondering whether it was a trick question. "It's an aneurism!" I said again. "Yes, we've all read the case," the professor continued. "But what should the defendant's lawyer do?" I was totally confused: "Um, if Zimmerman's lawyer doesn't tell Spaulding, Spaulding might die!" I said.
By this time the only hands that had not shot up to the sky were those belonging to me and my professor. Even those who had not done their homework understood the grave fallacy of my thinking. If Zimmerman's lawyer disclosed Spaulding's medical condition, think of the spillover effects! What defendant would ever trust his lawyer again? How would the system of justice fare if a defense lawyer privileged the needs of the plaintiff over those of the defendant, who, after all, was not necessarily responsible for the aneurism? What I had long suspected to be true was now official: I was structurally incapable of thinking like a lawyer. And thank God for that!
But had I really learned so little? In recent years, since the publication of A Problem From Hell, I have had occasion to debate some of the architects of American foreign policy. And while the pre-law school Samantha would have let her Irish temper get the best of her, and would have fumed with rage or wilted with despair amid pitched battle, the post-law school Samantha tries to bring an analytic scalpel to the arguments put before her, exhibiting what my mother calls "dispassionate passion."
Now, there is a cost, for sure, somewhere--maybe to the soul--of not just letting loose. But if law school has given you this ability to coolly absorb, analyze and rebut that which pains you and soils your sense of justice, it will serve you with your future employers, clients, romantic partners and children. You will win more arguments than you used to... At these prices, you damn well better!
But here's the rub--the trick is never to confuse means and ends. Cold-blooded reason is a tool that you can employ on behalf of what you believe in. But if you employ reason too soon, it can pre-empt feeling, and you can end up believing nothing at all. Lesson Number Two, then, is "Let reason be your tool, but let justice be your cause."