What It Means to Love the Law

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

By Nelson P. Miller

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law, offers a very personal and insightful perspective on the law.

It is hard to know if many lawyers reach this point in a law career.  Lawyer media report no surveys.  Yet the other day I realized, with no specific inspiration, that I love the law.

Any self-respecting lawyer would push the thought aside as inanity.  To love the law is way too sentimental, when law and its practice have very little to do with sentiment.  The legal mind, law profession, and lawyer’s spirit are practical and pragmatic.  Most lawyers barely allow room for emotion, and when we do, the emotions tend to be hard, like fear and conviction, rather than sweetly sentimental.

Yet for days, the thought of loving the law pursued me, filling the silent interstices between researching, writing, reviewing documents, and fielding client inquiries.  (I am a law professor and dean but retain the privilege of pro bono work.)  The thought of deeply loving what one does began brightening day after day of it, tempered only slightly by the fear that loving it might mean losing it sooner rather than later.  (Fear is a trial lawyer’s natural emotion from which we draw that indispensable trial-lawyer resource: courage.)

Most lawyers are wise enough to love law’s practice, meaning the interaction with clients, lawyers, witnesses, experts, and court staff.  What cold heart would not appreciate routine relationship with so rich a cast of needful, ambitious, humorous, and unique characters?  It can take some time, but lawyers even learn to love judges—on any day other than one misspent losing a motion.

Nearly all lawyers also love the engagement that law practice brings, not just to know a community’s problems like reading a local newspaper but to solve those problems.  Lawyers pursue a community’s possibilities rather than merely speculate about them.  Lawyers love doing, from attacking the horror of human trafficking all the way to negotiating public bond financing for a hospital authority.  What pitiable professional soul could remain indifferent to such terrible problems and profound possibilities?

The public thinks lawyers love the money.  The remuneration that necessarily flows from law practice can carry its own small satisfaction.  After all, earning one’s keep and the keep of one’s family are first responsibilities.  Should we not find modest solace in it?  Yet lawyers know that the lawyer who loves money pursues a relentless, untrustworthy, and discredited master.  Loving the law is not the same as loving its profit.  Far from it.

To love the law means more than to love its practice or profit.  Think of the law itself, stripped of its people and purposes.  Loving the law entails discerning law’s sensitivity, how well the law listens and responds to people and purposes.  Loving the law entails discerning law’s power, to which not just parties and their lawyers but also judges and officials must bend.  Most of all, loving the law entails discerning law’s source, as the Declaration says in inalienable rights granted from God rather than government.  Few things could deserve greater devotion.

In the end, loving the law may not be sentimental but sacrificial.  Loving the law requires bending one’s own naturally selfish ways to the selfless way of a gloriously jealous but nonetheless perfect master.  Maybe more lawyers, indeed all lawyers whether emerging or experienced, should love the law unashamedly.  Sure, keep priorities in order.  Love God, kin, and country before career, even when the career is a satisfying law practice.  Yet loving the law can come very close to loving something and someone much greater.  What a good day it is to be a lawyer.

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Filed under Faculty Scholarship, The Value of a Legal Education

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