13 min read

Can law preserve beauty?

Can law preserve beauty?
Photo by Cayetano Gil / Unsplash

Many of us find a deep sense of beauty in the stories that tell us who we are. This beauty, which forms a people's sense of identity and the cultural heritage that they pass down from generation to generation, is not simply abstract. Rather, it is often tied to a sense of place. And this sense of place, as well as the stories that bind us to it, can easily be threatened in many ways by powerful actors from the outside.

The law can play an important role in helping people preserve the beauty that they value. I recently spoke to my friend Katherine Sorrell, an attorney at Cultural Heritage Partners, about the work she does with communities around the United States. She talks about how encountering this form of legal practice led her to overcome her initial skepticism about the study of law. She also describes how her clients have taught her to appreciate beauty in a new way, and also how there are forms of beauty in the practice of law itself and its ability to create sustainable solutions that benefit communities in the long run. And finally she reflects on the relationship between beauty and justice in the context of the limits of our justice system.

Check out an exerpt of our interview in the YouTube clip below. A longer transcript of our conversation follows.


What attracted you to law as a career?

So I actually resisted law for a long time. I think I had sort of a fixed understanding of what it meant to be a lawyer, which was long grueling hours at a big corporate law firm, poring over papers and contracts. And I really just didn't want any part of that.

I have a background studying literature as an undergrad. And then I went into academic sociology for a few years, and was working sort of in nonprofit international development space. And I reached a point where I just felt like, there's a lot I could do with a law degree, kind of from a very practical standpoint. So I made the decision to go back to school, about sort of 10 years into my career at that point in my professional life. I went to law school, and much to my delight, I discovered that all of my prior experience, my passions, my interests, I could still sort of marry that with practicing law. And it's certainly been a journey.

But I think that there's a lot to be said for being able to use the law as a tool, as one tool in the toolbox, so to speak, when you're talking about systemic and structural change. So there's many ways to approach big problems in our society and big problems that we want to fix in the world. And the law is just one among many tools. So that's been the real upside that I've seen to having a law degree is I'm able to deploy that as a tool.

Where in your work do you encounter beauty?

In a very literal sense, I encounter beauty through a lot of the kind of literal issues that we deal with. We represent a lot of indigenous groups. In the US, we refer to them as Native American tribes, of course, and so our clients are, a lot of times they're dealing with issues related to land conservation. They're trying to preserve access to ancestral land that they have either lived on or lived in close proximity to over hundreds and hundreds, thousands of years in some cases. And a lot of times, they're dealing with very literal issues of, you know, they want to make sure that the river that their ancestors fished on stays clean. They want to make sure that their children have access to the coastal waterways where their ancestors gathered food for thousands of years. Or they want to make sure that the trees that they've lived surrounded by for, again for thousands of years are not burned down by wildfires or by you know, they're not torn cut down because of a warehouse that gets built or a highway that gets put in for example.

So, in a in a literal sense, I encounter the beauty of the land itself. and my clients are, they're able to shed light on the beauty of the land and sort of new dimensions and new ways that I may not even be aware of. So they're often teaching me about, you know, this is why preserving this stretch of the river is important because it, you know, cleans out the water for downstream users hundreds of miles away. Or they're teaching me about the history of their own connection to it, their own history. Sometimes that means, this is where my great grandparents were buried, or there's sometimes really devastating stories about finding human remains, and they don't know exactly what's happened, but they can sort of trace it back to connection to their tribe, and, and their tribal ancestry. So, so there's all kinds of dimensions of literal beauty of encountering that.

Sometimes we're dealing with art and with objects. And we're, we're representing not just indigenous clients, but other clients who are, you know, trying to deal with literal objects that are in their possession or used to be in their possession. And, and there's, there's so much beauty in that in the object itself. But there's also a lot of beauty and the stories behind it, the way that people make meaning out of, out of, you know, these literal things, these material things that they're connected to, in some way.

What about the process of legal work? Do you find beauty there?

Yeah, that's a great question. I think I find enormous amounts of beauty in the not necessarily the problem solving, but just in the sense of, there's a process to everything. I think one of the traps that lawyers often fall into is they fall into a sort of a compliance role or a check the box sort of like, have we made sure that we've gone through all the steps that the law requires. And one of the things I really admire about my colleagues is that they have really taught me to push the envelope on "we're not in a check the box business, we're not just compliance officers," that, again, the law is one tool among many others.

But the real heart of if we're going to offer anything, as representatives of our clients, but also as sort of agents of change in the world, then we have to be creative. We have to think outside the box, we have to be focused on not just good process, but good outcomes. And how do you sort of get to those points? And I think one of the things that's great about the area of law where I work is it's not just sort of, you know, where you're dealing with straight interpretation of a statute, for example, or you're just reading a contract. A lot of times what we're doing is we're trying to bring a lot of parties to the table, and create consensus, create shared understanding, and then create win-win scenarios.

I'll give you an example. So there is a something called free prior and informed consent, which is a concept that's been applied to indigenous peoples in international law. And essentially what it means is, in order to hold businesses, corporations, accountable to, you know, engaging indigenous peoples that are going to be impacted by, say, a huge mining project that's developed in an indigenous people's community. The international standard now, which is being widely adopted, for example, and let's stay with the mining industry, by international mining associations across the board, they're adopting free prior and informed consent as their standard. And what free prior and informed consent means is that the corporation should go to the tribe or the indigenous group and say, "Okay, before we do anything, we're going to engage you in a process of obtaining your consent to the project." So in an ideal situation, that means that they're even co designing the project with the indigenous group. So it's not like they're going, creating the plans, and then bringing it to them. Instead, they're saying, "we've identified a potential location for our project. But we know that there's enormous impacts that this could have on your, your community, on your land, on your livelihoods, et cetera. And we want to engage you in a process of co-designing how this project could be mutually beneficial. You know, we want to do this, but we don't want to do it without your consent."

And the concept of free prior and informed is that it's freely given, that it's obtained prior to the project's commencement, and that it's done on an fully informed basis. So there's no subterfuge going on in the, in the co-design process, so to speak. So that's a great example of a situation where, you know, in the US, there's no laws on the books that require free prior and informed consent. There's other requirements of engaging tribes in development projects, like mining projects, again. But there's no hard law that says you a corporation has to obtain free prior and informed consent from a tribe before they develop a mine in their backyard. But we can get to a place where we're able to create win-win scenarios where we're preventing damage to the tribe, and we're preventing, you know, something like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that erupted or enormous delays in the permitting process, or, you know, investors pulling their financing of a project because there's, you know, conflict between the tribe or the local community and the multinational corporation, or whoever it is, the developer that's coming in, to develop the mine. And using something like free prior and informed consent, there's all kinds of ways that you can be creative around that.

And we're seeing that corporations are becoming more and more creative about ways that they can implement free prior and informed consent, the ways that they can co-design projects with an indigenous peoples, rather than, you know, a lot of times they get stuck in the sort of check the box compliance, you know, "let's just make sure we're, we're legally in the right here," as opposed to "how do we really not just focus on the on the law, but how are we really creating solutions that benefit everyone?"

So that's a lot to say that I find immense amount of beauty in those sort of  challenges where you're having to say, "okay, you know, here's the, here's what the law says, but here's the limits of the law. And let's go beyond that, and explore how we can actually create something that's sustainable, that creates change over time, and that creates healthy communities over time."

So is it important to have outcomes where the communities that are participating not only can co-design a project, but somehow are better off as a result of having been in that?

Yes, absolutely. Yes, that's the idea is that it's not going to be a win for the tribe, or even potentially the corporation in the long run, if there's not a benefit that comes from the process of creating this project together.

So for example, a lot of scenarios like this, you know, the, the corporation sort of has some public relations type statements where they say, "we're bringing a lot of jobs," which is often true, and there's no negating that. And a lot of times, communities are very attracted to that type of selling point, and they want more jobs in their communities. But the question is, you know, at what cost? And what other cost?

For example, in some cases, when you're dealing with indigenous communities, and you have an influx, a sudden influx, due to a development project, influx of people, of labor. All of a sudden, you're dealing with different racial ethnic groups, even linguistic groups that are rubbing up against each other. Sometimes there's detrimental effects, like, you know, missing and murdered women or a spike in sexual harassment. So there are all kinds of things, unintended consequences that could result. And allowing equal voices at the table allows the communities to voice those concerns, to say, "how are we going to have some sort of process, that we can raise alarm bells, if something's going on, and prevent something from happening down the road?"

Now, we deal a lot of times with cultural heritage, where you may have a sacred site that the community is interested in preserving. And so again, they're wanting to say like, "okay, great, you can come in, do this project, but we want to make sure that, you know, that this site is sacred to us, and that it remains untouched." And without that conversation, a lot of times, the corporation isn't even going to know that it's a sacred site, or they may not even know that there's any history or story behind it. And so, you know, they might develop plans out of just pure ignorance, that end up having enormous impact, devastating impact to a community if they don't have a voice from the beginning.

So, yes, there, there are ways to think about benefits to the community on many different levels. Sometimes it's purely monetary. Of course, there are Community Benefit Agreements that get created where there's a, you know, a monetary benefit, but I think that it can operate it, you know, many different dimensions.

Do you find any obstacles to encountering beauty in your work?

Absolutely. I think that there is there are a lot of limitations to the law. You know, it is, as one of my law professors said, early on, when I was in law school, I was reading a case and, and I said, “Well, how did they come up with this rule, that has now because of precedent, it's become the rule that we uphold. How did they come up with it in the first place?” Which was one of the most naive questions I now realized I could have asked. Because my professor just looked at me and said, “well, they made it up.”

So I think we have to understand the law in its historical context, that it reflects the time in which – a lot of times that an opinion was written or a statute was written, it can oftentimes perpetuate the worst of our systemic and structural challenges. So it can be for frustrating at times to work with the law, because sometimes you don't see a true reflection of our ideal of what of what our world could look like.

But again, I go back to, that's where the sort of getting out of the mindset of, “well, all I can do is what what the hard law says I can do, all I can do is what the what the, you know, Black Letter rule says.” My imagination is limited to that is another way of putting it. Instead imagine, you know, how can we understand the law as a somewhat blunt instrument, but one that that can change over time, and one that we can use for purposes of creating something different and something else that we imagine, right?

So, a lot of people working as lawyers or studying to be lawyers probably may not experience beauty in their work. Do you have any advice for what they could do and where it is that they might turn? To find the beauty in law?

Yeah, that's a great question. I think that this is a very practical answer. I can trace back my current my current work and how I became the type of lawyer that I am now, I can trace it back to simply having conversations with people, and reaching out to people who were doing things I found interesting, and just beginning a dialogue with them. And also looking for the unexpected.

So when I was in law school, I had, wonderful professors, but many of them told me, "Look, no one in business cares about human rights, you're, you're not going to get anywhere if you try to do anything at the intersection of business and human rights law." And I, you know, sort of took them at their word initially. But I started looking into people who worked in law representing big energy companies, or working in even big law firms, where, you know, you would expect them to sort of just be corporate law focused, in the stereotypical sense. And I started finding people who were writing things, who were speaking on panels, who were talking about the importance of human rights to business. And lately we've seen sort of a new conversation open up around environmental-social governance, or ESG. And, and there's been a dialogue, in the culture and in the law, around, you know, what is the responsibility of business when it comes to not just climate change in the environment, but also social issues, human rights, you know, governance, etc.

So, you know, just by having some of those conversations, my world opened up to, okay, there's a whole world of possibilities here, in terms of what I know, what I'm interested in, and being able to pursue that, and if I just keep kind of pulling out this thread, and keep having more and more conversations, then maybe I'll sort of land you know, in a in a spot where I'm able to practice the type of law that I find interesting and beautiful.

But I will say that, you know, it's a real thing that lawyers are some of the most stressed, out depressed, unhealthy people. I think statistically, there's, there's actual measurements of that and so that's a real concern that I think people should have is how do I take care of my soul, my well being, my health and do this job or practice this a career? And of course, there are many people who decide that it's not for them and they go do something else. But that doesn't mean that they're not using their understanding of the law, even if they're not sort of practicing it in a traditional sense. But yes, I would always encourage people to call someone even cold call them because people love talking about what they do. And you can always learn if you just pick up the phone or shoot them an email.

Thank you! Is there anything else that you want to add about the role of beauty in your work?

There's a lot that we've discussed in our, in our culture about, again, the limitations of the law and our legal system. What I would encourage anyone to think about is, how do we not allow our imagination to be limited by the current state of affairs, but really start to think about – you know, one word we haven't used in this conversation is justice. And I do think there's an element of beauty to justice. But the justice system is often not beautiful, and it's, it can be extremely limited. So not allowing even our definition of justice to be chained to, you know, our sort of what's directly in front of us at the moment, and, and allowing our imagination to open up to the possibility of again: where's beauty going to break in to this system that's so old and, and takes a long time to change and can be, you know, at times heartbreaking as a result? So that's all I would add.


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