UPDATED: December 16, 2014, at 9:53 p.m.
For my first job out of law school, I worked at a nonprofit in South Africa. My first client was a woman who had been gang-raped and beaten up by five men. When she went to her local clinic, she discovered that she could not receive the antiretroviral medicine that might prevent her from contracting HIV because Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president at the time, and his government did not believe that HIV caused AIDS. It was a traumatic and difficult case, and we lost over and over before we finally won in court and forced the government to change its dangerous policies. The specifics of her case were revolting, and the government’s response to her plight was heartbreaking. And yet every day I went to work and pressed forward. I did this not because I was superhuman or somehow unfeeling, but because I was a lawyer.
Now I read that Harvard Law students are demanding an extension on their exams because the trauma of recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island has made it impossible for them to focus on their studies. I am not sympathetic.
Setting aside the rather ridiculous notion that these instances somehow constituted a massive loss of innocence (you’re at one of the elite centers of legal education in the world and you didn’t know racial injustice existed in America?), Harvard Law must see its principal mission as training future lawyers for the rigors of practicing law. Lawyers need to be advocates who fight relentlessly for their clients’ interests, who are capable of working under pressure on often emotionally charged cases on behalf of clients whose lives and livelihoods depend on their ability to do so. If you cannot handle these sorts of pressures, you’re not ready for life as a lawyer.
This is doubly true for those who wish to dedicate some or all of their careers to civil rights advocacy. I recently spoke with Cary Hansel, a partner at Joseph Greenwald & Laake who has handled civil rights cases for the last 15 years. He told me directly that he would never hire anyone who felt the need to delay exams because of Ferguson-related trauma. He wrote to me (and later repeated in part in a blog post), “If you are rendered so helpless by media reports of injustice from afar that you cannot even take a make-believe school test, you are not prepared to handle the real pain experienced by victims in the up-close-and-personal way that is necessary to bring them—and our country—justice. The tests you are shirking are a sad fantasy approximation of what lawyers do—with no one's life hanging in the balance, and without any real repercussions for the quantum of justice in the world.”
The Harvard Law School faculty and administration must reject the demand for exam extensions. As a black man who desperately wants dedicated, intelligent, and well-trained lawyers to fight the good fight for justice, I fear that by following in the footsteps of Georgetown University Law Center and Columbia University School of Law, HLS will be doing a grave disservice to the school’s commitment to producing effective and vigorous advocates. We need people made of sterner stuff.
This is a tough profession, and in the fight for justice mollycoddles and sunshine soldiers are not needed. To those law students who feel the need to take a timeout, I offer a sincere bit of advice: If this decision incapacitates you so profoundly that your mind cannot write intelligently about torts or contract law, then my suggestion is that you have found yourself in the wrong field. Sell insurance, develop an app, open a florist shop, become a barber or a bartender, but do not put yourself out there as a man or woman capable of standing up for clients and fighting for them. If you don’t have the steel for this fight, you don’t have the chops to be a good lawyer. It really is that simple.
This is a serious time for serious people. If Harvard Law Students will not take their educations seriously, then the faculty must make them do so. Either way, they simply must take their exams.
Brian T. Fobi is an expository writing preceptor at Harvard College.
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