University of Maryland School of Law
I am embarrassed to admit that my starting point for this
essay was television. More specifically,
“The Practice,” a T.V. series about criminal defense lawyers and
prosecutors struggling with complex ethical
dilemmas – and some pathetic plot lines as well.
One night, as I watched with my family, I was fixated, not on the
characters, not on the plot, but on the name of the show– the Practice.-- It
was the word practice. I began to think how this word might relate to
our graduates as lawyers.
they were children, every time they tried to learn something new— tying a
shoe, riding a two-wheel bike or writing in cursive, a chorus of caring –
but sometimes annoying parents and teachers -- echoed the words –
“practice, practice, practice.”
course, the TV show uses the term practice as a noun to describe the law firm
that specializes in criminal law. Or
maybe it is shorthand for “the practice of law” – a term defined as the
professional work of a licensed lawyer (in other words, you’ve passed the
Bar). Many centuries ago, the
exercise of the profession of law, as well as medicine were linked with the
term practice. (Other professions never adopted the link.
For example, we don’t use the phrase – “the practice of
the most important definition for us to focus on is the verb “practice” --
“the studying or exercising for the purpose of attaining proficiency” --
not perfection -- with the goal of working toward excellence.
Our graduates will need drive, commitment, reflection, perspective, and
flexibility to keep at it, to try to do better
and to know when to consider a new strategy or direction.
A skill or game can also be practiced, but the law is
different. The stakes are high. Many
of them will give voice to those who would not be heard otherwise –
outsiders, they do not speak law-- they do not practice law.
The practice of law is a privilege. As a society, we cannot afford for
those charged with the administration of justice to become desensitized to the
pain and violence and joy and happiness of those whom they are bound to give
voice. Practicing at the law
requires more than just knowing the rules.
this is not a new idea. In fact,
I want to share a story written almost two hundred years ago that I read about
when researching how the practice of law and lawyers are depicted in American
literature. Coincidentally, this
story is about a Maryland lawyer, Morcell, the protagonist in George
Watterson’s book The Lawyer, or Man As he Ought Not to Be.
Morcell’s father, a wealthy Maryland landowner, hires an ex-lawyer--
well acquainted with legal villainy -- to train his son in the knowledge of
technical, legal rules.
Unfortunately, the ex-lawyer is neither able nor disposed to train
Morcell on the fundamentals of justice.
to the story, Morcell’s only reason for practicing law is to make money, not
to strive for justice. After
losing a poor widow’s case through his own negligence, he seizes her
belongings including her sickbed, to satisfy his fee. However, he continues to
attract clients because he has great courtroom presence -- a Perry Mason
without the integrity. He rises to prominence in the Maryland bar, only to
later experience feelings of guilt. He
retires to a distant part of the state, living in obscurity, hoping to repent
for “the crimes of which I have been guilty.” Moral of the story -- our
graduates must practice the profession with care and compassion. When all is
said and done, they and we, their educators, have to live with their actions
-- and be able to sleep at night.
transition back from l9th century fiction to present reality. Each of our
graduates probably thinks repeatedly during the three or four years of law
school that the process will never end. And if we have taught them well, it
never will. They and we must keep
practicing. We must help them to develop the tools of learning, which, of
course are far more important than any specific legal doctrine or skill.
is also important that we and they gain perspective from other interests and
other disciplines. Although this advice might be a little extreme, consider
the words of Ephaim Crabbe, a leader of the Maryland bar, who described the
best method of study to his law clerk -- Clement Falconer-- in his l838 book, The
Memoirs of a Young Whig:
six hours a day -- and let it be your study to understand, rather than
remember all you read. If you understand the law, it is all you can expect;
nor need you wish for more. After
your legal studies are finished for the day, read history, poetry, romance,
chemistry, botany, anything and everything. Change of occupation is the best
relaxation for the mind, and a lawyer’s mind should be full of
I guess Crabbe didn’t have much of a life or a family -- he might have been a
little off on the details, and he was innocent of modern relaxation techniques
such as yoga and massage. But at
the core, his message still rings true. We must instill in our students the
drive to understand, keep learning, put their legal work in context, respect
themselves and their profession, and practice to achieve excellence.