Lawyers, as a group, are thought by some (or perhaps most) people to be scheming, manipulative, self-centered, untrustworthy, greedy, competitive, and callous. Despite (or perhaps because of) this reputation, I think the law is one of the most human of professions. Surely, its practitioners display the full range of human qualities – not just the Pandora’s box refugees alluded to above, but also all the noble traits, too – compassion, tenacity, wisdom, vision, dedication, and every once in a while a little justice sneaks in there. But what really ties the law to humanity is the fact that it’s all about our relationship to rules – how they are created, how they are interpreted, how they change, why they are there – and humans are the only species that makes (or perhaps needs) rules. We have rules to help guide our behavior, and much of the practice of law is based on the understanding that we must simultaneously respect rules for the structure they provide while also recognizing that they are necessarily imperfect, contingent, and mutable.
Scientists study “rules”, too, but in truth (or perhaps ironically), they’re really looking for “laws” – unbendable axioms that reveal some unshakeable, determined physical or statistical relationship. What could a lawyer do with “E=mc2”? There’s no argument that it depends on intent or that under exigent circumstances E might actually be closer to mc than mc2. It is what it is. On the plus side, the fact that scientific laws are invariable means we can plan around them. We can build skyscrapers and rockets and supercomputers without having to worry that sometimes F might not equal ma. You’ll never hear a news report that begins, “And today, a drop in the value of Avogadro’s Number caused explosions in over 200 chemical manufacturing plants, and is being blamed for appearance of a twelve-story tall fire-breathing lizard currently rampaging through the streets of Tokyo . . .”
Interestingly, in my work counseling lawyers about how to find jobs and plan their careers, several of them have come to me with the clear expectation (or perhaps simply hope) that I can help them identify some immutable “laws” they can plan their job searches around. If I follow this cover letter format exactly, will I get an interview? Do I wear a red tie or a blue tie to my first interview? Should I leave my GPA off my resume unless it is greater than or equal to this firm’s profits-per-partner divided by a quarter million dollars? By obsessively looking for the unattainable comfort of finding sure-fire rules, we sometimes lose sight of both our goals and the many alternative paths to reaching them.
Whether you are looking for work or gainfully employed, it is natural during times of uncertainty to wish that you could discover some fixed laws that will tell you the one right way to do things. But it is more realistic and practical to recognize that the best we can do is to learn the rules as broad governing concepts, constantly shaped and reshaped by custom, culture, psychology, and results – and that treating any such rule (or perhaps guideline) as a fixed law is going to diminish its effectiveness. If we learn anything as lawyers, it’s that a little flexibility helps make our rules even stronger.