Column: (Re) Committing to a Life of the Law

Sunday, August 24, 2014
(Published in print: Sunday, August 24, 2014)

Following are excerpts from Cheryl Hanna’s keynote address to the Vermont Justice Association’s 2010 Annual Meeting , Doing Ourselves Justice: (Re) Committing to a Life of the Law . Hanna, a prominent Vermont Law School professor and legal commentator, took her own life last month.

. . . Now, I have to admit that I feel a little bit like an imposter in the Temple being asked to speak with a group of real lawyers. My daughter really does tell people that her mommy is only a lawyer on TV. If you’ll allow me to use the analogy between baseball and the law made famous by Chief Justice John Roberts at his confirmation hearing, if judges are the umpires, and the practicing bar are the players, then the law professors are the George Wills of the game. We’re the pundits. We pontificate and speculate and don’t hesitate to throw in our two cents about every aspect of the game even though we probably couldn’t hit the ball on the easiest pitch.

In other words, like George Will, I’m a wannabee.

But also like George Will and his love for the great American sport, I have a deep love and appreciation for the law. It is my life. . . .

But more importantly, I don’t just love the law, I love lawyers. I have greatest admiration and respect for what you do. Now, that is not to say that we don’t have problems in the profession . . . . But it is my humble opinion the law and those who practice it are among the most important people in our democracy.

But I have been very disturbed lately by what I see as unjustified attacks on the profession. . . .

To that end, Todd asked me to give an inspirational talk. I am not sure that I can do that, but as a professor, I can give you homework. In the medical field, there is something that is called the model of the reflective practitioner. The premise is simple: professionals who intentionally reflect upon what they do and why they do it learn in more profound ways and express greater satisfaction with their profession. Doctors are being trained to actively engage in professional reflection as part of their medical education. However, law schools have not done a good job of implementing similar training for lawyers, and thus, lawyers often don’t have the tools or guidance to become a reflective practitioner, and, as a result I think, often experience greater ambivalence about the legal profession and their role in it.

So, I’d like to introduce some concept about intentional reflection to you and give you some tools to use to try to become a reflective practitioner with the hope that you will do yourselves justice and find more meaning in your professional lives.

Assignment 1: Tell Your Own Story About Your Path to the Law

We learn about ourselves through the stories that we tell and so in your first assignment as a reflective practitioner, I want you to tell your own story about how and why you became a lawyer. And to encourage you to do that, if you will indulge me, let me tell you mine.

One of my earliest memories was going with my mother to the local Montgomery Ward store to shop for clothes for the start of first grade. We had picked up things that 6-year-olds would love. It was 1972 and Mod Sq uad clothes were all the rage. We took the clothes to the check-out counter and my mom handed the woman her credit card. Some of you may remember that, in those days, the salespeople would call someone to get an authorization for the card. The woman came back and said that my father had cancelled the credit card. My parents were in the process of divorcing, and my father had cut off all of my mother’s access to cash and credit. The saleswoman then took out some scissors and cut up that card in front of my mother and me. Then she took back the clothes and looked at my mother with disgust in her eyes. I just stood there, on the verge of tears.

Now, my mother is a lot like President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The president once joked that when Rahm lost his middle finger to a meat slicer, it rendered him mute. That is my mother. She had more than a few choice words for that woman that I would not repeat, even in this crowd, and dragged me out that store with her head held high. I never saw her cry. Of course, at six years of age, I was too young to understand that a married woman could not get credit on her own until the Equal Opportunity Credit Act was passed in 1974, and that my mother was not a victim of a judgmental sales lady, but a casualty of the law.

My mother eventually went to work at Ford Motor Co. in what was often called the “pink ghetto.” Like many women, she worked in a low wage administrative job where she had to put up with male engineers hitting on her, inappropriate remarks, and plenty of other discrimination because it wasn’t until 1980 that the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

My younger sister and I were “latch-key kids” — a term I suspect that the media made up to make women feel guilty about working outside the home when, in fact, most women, like my mother, had to work. We’d come home after school and let ourselves into the house with the key my mother had me wear around my neck, and then we’d call her to let her know we were safe.

I was a news junkie, even as a 10 year old, and what I did in those afternoons before my mother came home from work was watch the news, and in particular, I would watch the women’s movement unfold. I was obsessed with the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. My mother would come home from work and I would say, “Guess what? There was another march in Washington because another state ratified. Isn’t that great?” And she would look at the television and see footage of feminists like Gloria Steinem burning their bras, and she would look at me and say, “Cheryl — those women are crazy! If you want to help women like me, don’t protest. Go to law school.”

And she would take me over to our World Book Encyclopedia. For those of you as old as me, you may remember that encyclopedias were where we used to look up information before there was the Internet. My mom had bought a used 1969 set, and so any fact about anything I know is limited to what happened before 1969. She would open the Colleges and Universities section and say, “Go to Harvard and be a lawyer and always be sure that you can financially support yourself.”

Now, while I appreciated my mother’s insistence that I go to law school, I never really believed that I could until the day that Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the bench. By 1981, there were certainly plenty of women lawyers, but I did not know any, nor had I ever seen one. Seeing O’Connor’s face on the television that day was one of the most important days in my professional life because being a lawyer suddenly became possible, and by the grace of the universe, I did it.

I tell you this story because I am positive that each one of you has your own story about your path to the law and that inevitably, part of that story includes having witnessed or been subjected to some indignity or suffering at the hands of injustice. No one in their right mind would take the LSAT and apply to law school if they did not somehow believe that they had to right some wrong. My path to the law started in the Montgomery Ward Children’s Clothing Department, but I believe that every good lawyer’s path to the law begins at a particular moment in time when you intuitively realize something isn’t just. . . .

Assignment 2: Assess Your Values An d Maybe Make Some Changes

At the end of my first semester of law school, one of my professors gave us this hypothetical: Suppose there is a man who has had a motorcycle accident. He is taken to the hospital, but he has lost his identification in the accident and no one knows who he is. He falls into a coma, and it takes two months before he recovers and his identity is learned. His health insurance policy says that the company must be notified of any claims within 30 days or it will not cover his medical costs. So the man sues his insurance company.

Assume that you represent the insurance company. What do you do?

As first year law students, eager to try out our new knowledge, we start shouting legal truisms like “a contract is a contract” and “the patient had proper notice.” This went on for a while and then the professor shouted: “Stop. You’re wrong! You look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘What has become of me? ’ ” And then she walked out of the room and our first semester of law school came to an end. We all sat there perplexed, because we were too young and inexperienced to understand what the point of that story was.

Upon reflection, it was not a trick to get us to stay away from insurance defense work, although I know that there are plenty of people who have no love for insurance companies. Rather, that was our professor’s way of alerting us to one of the biggest challenges in our profession. Because of our ethical duty to zealously represent our clients, lawyers have a harder time than many other professionals living in a manner that is consistent with their values. And as a result, as lawyers, we often find ourselves advocating for positions that run contrary to our own deeply held beliefs. This gives plenty of fuel to the lawyer-bashers, and often leads us to question our profession and our commitment to it.

Bill Grace, who runs the Center for Ethical Leadership, has people do an exercise where he has them identify their core values. We do this at the Snelling Center for Government in our Vermont Leadership Institute. We of course all value many, many things — family, security, integrity, influence — but Grace asks people to narrow down the list of those things we truly value to only two. At your core, what are the two things that are most important to you? You can easily do this exercise so you can answer that question.

Then, after you identify those two core values, look at your calendars and look at your checkbooks, because the way to tell if you are really living your core values is to see where you are spending your time and your money. If what you really value is justice and you are at work all the time, there is no shame in that. But if you really value family and you haven’t made it home for dinner in a month, you’ve got a problem. . . .

That is the root of the word disease. It is dis-ease with one’s life. We have too much disease in the law, in part because of the professional challenges that we face to live consistent with our values and because it is so easy to lose sight of what is really important to us in the daily grind of life.

That was the moral of my professor’s story: To thy own self be true.

Our primary duty as lawyers is not to the law, but to ourselves. Your duty is to you. Therefore, I give you permission to put the law aside and put your own sense of self first.

Take stock of your values. Look at your checkbook and your calendar and to ask “what has become of me?” If you are in a state of ease, celebrate!

But if you are in a state of dis-ease, you have to make changes to your personal or professional life, which I know is not easy, but it is necessary in order to sustain a meaningful legal career. . . .

F inally, Assignment 3 — Be Grateful

Admittedly, this assignment is the hardest one, at least for me because, by nature, I am not a grateful person. I learned this the hard way on the morning my board of trustees granted me tenure. I was driving to graduation on a beautiful May day — a day just like this one, so happy that I had crossed the River Jordan into the promised land of tenure. But I was busy looking ahead to my next achievement rather than just appreciating where I was at that moment, and I pulled into oncoming traffic. I totaled my car and hurt myself. Luckily, the other driver was not injured. I thought this was some sort of sign that I had made a mistake, and I fell into what I call my post-tenure depression.

I suppose that this is similar to post-partner depression, or post-big-jury-verdict depression, but all of us, at some point in our professional career, wonder if we have made the right choice to pursue the law.

So while I was wallowing in my own self-absorbed self-pity, a friend insisted that I watch this Oprah episode. On the show was a woman who had written a book on gratitude, which she claimed was a learned skill. To learn gratitude, she suggested that each day you write down five things for which you are grateful and that you never repeat anything on the list.

Now, I thought that this sounded like a stupid waste of time, but my friend insisted that I do it. At first it was easy to think of the obvious things: friends, family, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, strong coffee and red wine. But after a while, you really have to think about what it is you have to be grateful for. And then you start to notice things in your world that are easy to overlook.

I ended up doing this gratitude exercise for a whole year, and I encourage you to try it. I really become most grateful I have never had to suffer the indignities that my mother did, which is why I will forever be grateful to lawyers who fought those battles so I and other women didn’t have to. Doing that exercise helped me really re-commit to the law in a far more profound way than I had ever imagined I would. . . .

Walk the Path of the Law on Your Feet

. . . . I was reminded of one of my legal heroes, Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston was an African-American son of a lawyer. But as a young man, he wanted nothing to do with the law. After he graduated from Amherst College, he joined the Army where he served in an all-black unit in World War I. When he returned, still somewhat adrift, he saw black soldiers, still in uniform, being lynched by angry white mobs in the South. That is where his path to the law began.

He attended Harvard Law School and was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Houston went on to document the indignities of racial segregation in the South with the goal of eventually overturning Plessey v. Ferguson. He became the dean of Howard Law School, where he trained the great civil rights lawyers including Thurgood Marshall. He started the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was the architect of the case strategy that led to Brown.

Yet, Houston had a bad heart and . . . his doctor advised him to stop working so hard. But Charles Houston used to say, “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” He literally died on his feet while working on a case in 1950, just four years before Brown was decided. . . .


So I leave you with one plea: Do not walk the path of the law on your knees. If the life of the law is not truly your calling, then there is no shame in following a different path. If you leave the law, trust me: You will not become homeless and have to beg in a subway with a sign that says “Out of work lawyer.” You are all smart and you will find your way on a different path. But if you are called to the law . . . don’t ever apologize for the work that you do.

Lawyers are the guardians of democracy. One-third of our constitutional democracy is solely entrusted to our care. We stop human suffering at the hands of injustice. That is hard work, and often thankless work, but is the work we are compelled by our own stories to do. There are few professions in the world that are nobler, or more necessary to the promotion of human dignity, than this one.

So I encourage you to tell your stories, to know who you are, and to bear witness to human suffering at the hands of injustice that we, as lawyers, are compelled to end.

And most importantly, I implore you, proudly stand up, so that when you die, because you inevitably will die, that you will gratefully and graciously be standing on your feet.

The full transcript of this speech is available at SSRN: or