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The beauty (and ugliness) of the law

"If a law is unjust, if it's misdirected, it has a unique ability to be something harmful. But at its best, law expresses what is the best in us." - Lucia Silecchia
The beauty (and ugliness) of the law

Beauty is not a word many of us would associate with the law. Think of written law and what comes to mind is stodgy legalese. A law that some see as just can seem cruel and unjust to others. And whatever you think of lawyers, you probably don't think of their work as beautiful. But I recently sat down with a lawyer who thinks differently.

Prof. Lucia Silecchia has taught at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America for 30 years. She works on environmental law and ethics, as well as issues related to the elderly and persons with disabilities.

In our conversation, she explains why there is a great deal of beauty in the law – even in written law. But she also cautions us about the law's capacity for ugliness. And she provides some sage advice for those who don't see beauty in the study or practice of the law.

Check out our interview in the video, below which is an excerpt from our conversation.

What attracted you to law in the first place?

A couple of things. When I was in college, I studied both literature and politics in history. And I was interested in both of those. With literature, I came to love the written word, to love the way in which it tells stories about our lives as people, both individually and in communities. And I liked history and politics, because it told us a lot about how we get along, how we build societies. And so, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I was really torn between literature and politics and history.

And law, to me seemed like a perfect blend of the two of those because it was a way in which I could study how we use words, to govern and to build our community and our society. And so, I haven't looked back since then; it's been something that is just endlessly fascinating. And in an odd way, it can be very beautiful. And it can also be very ugly when used the wrong way.

In what ways is law beautiful? Where do you encounter beauty in the law?

So often, people won't think of law as beautiful. And I will concede that when you look at regulations, and the stilted way in which we often write them in the interest of precision, we lose some of that beauty. But I think law is in a fundamental way – the way in which we build our society, we come up with that set of rules that govern our relationships with each other, build those things that if they're done right, in advance the common good, avoid harms, repair wrongs. And so I think that is very beautiful.

I also think when law is correct, and good, and just, it's a wonderful teacher, because at its best, a law expresses what we value. And that expresses what we think is good. And it expresses the way we think that we'll achieve that.

The downside, of course, is that law has a power that nothing else has, because law is backed up with the power of the state to coerce compliance with the law. And so, if a law is unjust, if it's misdirected, it has a unique ability to be something harmful. But at its best, law expresses what is the best in us.

When I teach environmental law, one of the things I tell my students is to read the preamble to the National Environmental Policy Act. And that is probably the only piece of law that I would say reads like poetry. But it is an expression of broad ideals about our obligations toward the created world and to future generations. And you read something like that, and you say, yeah, law does have the ability to express our high ideals. There are other times when you read a statute or you read a court opinion, and you know that it's doing something unjust, and you see what could be good and beautiful and true being misused.

Are there particular moments that come to mind where you encountered beauty in your work?

So I'll give you a few examples. One of the things that I really love seeing is the times in which we use the law to correct mistakes. And law begins as a series of rules, regulations, decisions created by imperfect people. And we're going to get it wrong more often than we'd like to. And so, when you see a court opinion, that looks at something we did in the past and says, "We got that wrong, we made a mistake, we sinned, we did something that was evil, we're going to fix it," I think that's a beautiful thing. And you see that when you look at landmark Supreme Court opinions that look at things that we did in the past and say, that was wrong, we're correcting that mistake.

Another example that I'll see is, I think after 30 years, very often I think of myself more as a teacher than a lawyer. And when I see my students understand something for the first time, or put together the pieces of a puzzle, or when we’re studying something like trusts and estates, which many people will think is bland and boring. And they'll look at it and say, “Wow, if I know that, I can help my client avoid this type of problem or creating this type of tension in their family.” So I think whenever I see the light bulbs go off in my students’ minds, when they see the capacity of law to do something good, or they anticipate their own ability to use law for the good, I think for me, as a teacher, that's a beautiful moment.

And then I think there are also statutes that begin with a great deal of optimism. And I'm thinking in particular, for example, of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is a very far-reaching statute, which really try to take a look not only at mistakes that we had made in the past that excluded many people from involvement in all phases of society and said: we are going to not just correct that, but set forth a bolder vision for the future of inclusion and advancement of people who the law had neglected or had been affirmatively cruel to in the past.

And so, when you see a statute like that with a great deal of potential – unfortunately, I think it has gotten bogged down with a lot of the bureaucracy that often comes with a statute. But when you see something that expresses an ideal or a vision for a better future, I think things like that are beautiful.

You talked about law having the potential for ugliness, in what sense is law ugly? Or in what sense does the law have capacity for ugliness?

Sure, I think, you know, continuing with some of the focus on persons with disabilities, when you read court opinions from the past, and you read about how people were discussed, how they were referred to, terms that we used to describe them. When you look at some of the cases that denied basic fundamental human rights to people, because of a disability, that is an ugliness. And you see that, you know, in certain other contexts, as well.

And the fact that it is law, as opposed to somebody writing an opinion paper or an editorial, but this is law. This is something that not only is supposed to be an expression of values, and when we get that wrong, that is ugly, but it is also something that has the coercive power of the state behind it. And so, I think that's the unique capacity that law has for ugliness. And I also think, you know, very often now, when we see a law that is passed quickly, or one that is the result of trades and bargains for self-interest, rather than people coming together to say what's good for the common good, you know?

I think the process of lawmaking can be beautiful, and it can be ugly, too. And so it's not just the end results, but taking a look at how that process in a lot of ways is broken, and how we improve that so that maybe our outcomes are better, too.

There probably many lawyers and students who don't find beauty in the law, what advice would you have for them?

I’d say first, think a lot about why you want to be a lawyer. Because the reason you go into law will change a lot during the course of your life. Expect that, but understand what it is you're seeking. Because sometimes, even if the ways to accomplish what you want at times can seem dull, and technical and not exciting, keep that in mind.

Also have a good sense of who you are, and what your values are. And for me, those are very much influenced by my faith. That teaches me about the dignity of the human person, the importance of the law to protect that, and the responsibility of lawyers to make sure that law is moral, good, and just. And the older I get, the more important that feels.

And so I think it's important for anybody aspiring to the law to see it not just as a game of winners and losers, and am I going to prevail in this litigation, will I get my legislation passed? But think about: What is justice? What do you think it is? How do you develop a deeper understanding of what is truly just? Because that will sustain you during those days when you're writing a footnote in a brief about an arcane provision of the New York State procedure code. And you think, how is this contributing to the common good? Step back and think about what is good and just and right. How can law get me there? And what's the part I can play even if it's a tiny little part in that big picture of developing a body of laws that ultimately we can be not just satisfied with but proud of, when it gets things right.

So would you say that there's beauty in that ability to see the relationship between the part and the whole, the part being your contribution, and then the common good?

Yeah, I would say, over time, keep the big picture in mind, always. Because if you lose sight of that, I think you can lose the enthusiasm for what first brought you to law. But also, over time, I think you get more satisfied with understanding that you're not always going to be playing the lead role. But sometimes being a member of the supporting cast is a good thing. And so maybe you're not going to be the one that argues the landmark Supreme Court case.

But if you're the person who talks to a client in a way that helps them in that little matter that means the world to their family, if you can help them reach a good outcome there, that's a good and beautiful thing too. And so, keep your eyes on the big picture. But also know that the big picture is made up of a lot of small little beautiful parts, and understand where you think your talents and gifts might best be used.

I think the other thing people often don't realize about lawyers is how different they are. And I think there's a stereotype of the lawyer as being a fighter being an advocate. When we watch TV, we see that model of the litigator lawyer. Lawyers are also counselors, and they hold people's hands in the worst times of their lives. They help people respond to the deaths of family members or serious illnesses or injustices. And that's a sign of being a good lawyer and a good person. That's also beautiful.

So anybody who's thinking about a career in law, also know yourself well – know what things you do well as a person, in your friendships, in your family relationships. Because chances are, that's also where you're going to make your best contribution to the practice of law, to serving your client, to advancing the development of the law.

It's important to stay idealistic, and there is a lot that can be discouraging, a lot that can seem as though we are at polar opposites on the most important issues about of our day. And it's absolutely important to know what the absolutes are and where it's important to be absolutely honest about what you think about the morality of various legal questions.

And at the same time, I would say, don't get discouraged. Because good people can do a lot of good. And the law, if it's used right, and it's in the hands of people who in good faith, really want to use it to advance the common good, they can do more good than I think sometimes we often think that we can.

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