Find Satisfaction in the Law: Columns: Richard D. Kahlenberg

Find Satisfaction In the Law: Guest Column


A Lawyer...and a Person
Richard D. Kahlenberg

By Terri Lynn Eberle

"...Law, in particular, is supposed to be about justice. Many are drawn to law because it presents, in Louis Brandeis' words, 'special opportunities for usefulness to your fellow-men'... prospective students realize that one side (corporate America) is forever marshaling the best legal talent in an attempt to buy justice, and they come to law school wanting to correct the imbalance. But somewhere along the line, they lose two things. First, they lose their innocence, when they realize that a lot of lawyers are just after the bucks, after all. Then, the external becomes internal, and they lose some of their own idealism, accepting that they, too, may not be as good as they thought they were...

...Every year it happens. A number of students come wanting to be Atticus Finch and leave as Arnie Becker. You can blame the individuals for breaking their personal contracts - the agreements they had with themselves that they were pursuing law not for the money but to do good. You can blame the institution, the Harvard Law School, for breaking its implicit contract, proclaimed on the walls of its buildings, that law is about justice, and then fostering an atmosphere where it is hard not to be a hypocrite. But no matter who is ultimately responsible, the sad truth is that every time an idealistic law student turns into a hardened attorney for the wealthy and powerful, she brings closer to the breaking point another agreement - the social contract - and that is simply unacceptable." Richard D. Kahlenberg, Broken Contract

This past weekend, I attended the beautiful wedding of one of my best friends from law school. She was one of the people who was really there for me when it mattered during school. I was sad that we do not get to spend as much time together as we used to, yet so happy for her and her new husband!

A few former classmates were at the wedding (fortunately ones who I like!) As we discussed work, I mentioned that the job I hold now is not very "legal". In the first job I had after law school, I was not practicing, but what I was doing was law-related. Among other things, I did fact-finding that was utilized by attorneys. In my current job, however, I am a grant writer and fundraising manager, and do not have much to do with lawyers. I like not being faced every day with questions about why I am not practicing, but I sometimes miss pondering certain legal issues.

I have read the writings of law students and lawyers on the "Find Satisfaction" forum regarding the fears they feel when they consider not practicing - fear of being considered a loser for not making it in the law, fear of making another "wrong" career decision, etc. I had all the same fears a few years ago when I first decided to leave the law. However, after two years of working at "something else," I still have career concerns, but am definitely a lot more comfortable with my decision not to practice. I am now able to talk about what I do and what I want to do rather than dwelling on what I do not want to do!

One of the first times I received "permission" to pursue an alternative career from someone other than my family was during my first year of law school. I read a book and the author's voice spoke to me. The voice was louder than the other voices that were telling me that my only options were to drop out or to become a law firm attorney. It told me that it was OK for me to be Terri - to want to be creative, to want to utilize my law degree to influence the lives of others for the better, to want more than law firm life. This book was Broken Contract and the author was Richard D. Kahlenberg.

Broken Contract is a must-read for all law students and lawyers. In the author's own words, it is about "growing up, about becoming a fiance, then a husband, then a father; about losing self-confidence and slowly rebuilding it; about arriving with idealism, having it chipped away, and then trying to piece it back together again; about making choices, very difficult ones, between doing well and doing good, between doing what everyone else was doing and trying to break out."

The author writes about his experience at Harvard Law School in the late 80's. Throughout law school, Mr. Kahlenberg had to struggle just to maintain himself and his ideals. There were tremendous obstacles, as there were for me at GW in the mid 90's and as there are at law schools everywhere, to pursuing non-law-firm jobs. Almost everyone around Mr. Kahlenberg went off to work for big firms, including classmates who had pursued public interest work before law school. He correctly concluded that a major reason for this is that society as a whole and law schools specifically do not provide enough incentive for students to pursue public service careers. At the end of his book, he proposes increased loan forgiveness and prestigious programs that would attract young people interested in law as well as other disciplines (medicine, teaching, etc.) to careers in public service.

Mr. Kahlenberg worked for both a Boston law firm and the US Attorney's Office in Manhattan during law school. He came within a day of accepting an offer with a large DC firm but chose instead to go to the Hill. By deciding to work for Senator Robb, a moderate Democrat and political insider, Mr. Kahlenberg knew that he wasn't going to "save the world". However, I feel that he made an extremely brave and noble decision nonetheless - he decided to use his interests and talents in analyzing policy and poltics and in writing to serve the public instead of going into law practice.

After working for the Senator for a few years, Rick Kahlenberg accepted a visiting law professor position at GW. He was my teacher during my second year of law school for Constitutional Law II - Civil Rights and Liberties. I loved Con Law because it is so historical and political. I loved to learn about the political theorists of the past, such as John Locke, as well as all of the "hot" issues of our time, such as abortion, gay marriage, "right-to-die", hate speech and hate crimes, and affirmative action. Some of my classmates disliked Con Law for the same reason I loved it - they thought that it was too political and not "real law".

In Rick Kahlenberg's legal universe, I mattered. Unlike some other professors, he did not force us to check our feelings about the law and current events at the door of his classroom. He cared about what we personally felt and believed. He allowed us to express our opinions in class.

His final exam was not quite as open-ended as a college exam, but nonetheless was far superior to other law school exams in terms of allowing for personal expression. It was an eight hour take home exam. Half of it questioned our knowledge of the state of the law, and half of it asked us what we thought the law should be.

In writing this exam, I was able to develop my own judicial theory based on my personal beliefs - that everyone is equal under the law, that all members of our heterogeneous democratic society hold certain rights and freedoms and have a responsibility not to cause harm to others, that these rights should be protected from the political process by an active judiciary.

While I was in Professor Kahlenberg's class, I would visit him in his office. The following semester, he taught a course on affirmative action at GW's Public Affairs school. I would visit him when I happily journeyed outside the law school for a graduate-level course on the history of American foreign policy. During our visits, we would chat about our experiences, about politics, about supporting public service and alternative careers, and about my search for a career path. He was never too busy to talk to me and he always believed in me, no matter how off-the-beaten-track my plans and schemes were. Through his actions and his words, he encouraged me to become a writer and a teacher.

Mr. Kahlenberg has since written a critically acclaimed book called The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action. He has been published in a number of periodicals, has appeared on a number of television shows, and has given lectures at colleges and at other institutions. He is currently working on a book on inequality in education. He is a Fellow at the Center for National Policy, a progressive think tank in DC. He has a wife and three daughters who are very dear to him.

I recently I spoke to Rick Kahlenberg. He was glad that I am writing A Lawyer...and a Person, and felt honored that I chose to write an article about him. I wish him well with both his family life and his professional pursuits. I hope that he will always remain true to himself and will always instruct and inspire.







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