By Brónach Rafferty
Brónach Rafferty is a fourth-year law student at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
I have been thinking about my law degree lately. What is it that my professors are trying to teach me? What skills am I gaining? The ability to think critically, objectively? Or the ability not so much to think as to follow a system of rules that are already in place? Is there too much of a discrepancy between law as it is studied in an academic context and law in practice?
Law is a strange discipline because it is often studied as a purely academic discipline, yet it is geared towards something much more vocational. In the same way that reading papers about psychological research doesn’t make one a psychologist, simply reading case after case, textbook after textbook doesn’t make one a lawyer. In my classes, however, am I learning and actively engaging in my legal education, or am I merely being taught and passively absorbing information? I now wonder if I am learning how to think like a lawyer, or rather just taking the law as it is right in front of me.
Recently, I worked with an organization that specializes in class action procedures. One of the lawyers said to me that they never take cases by groups who have caused harm, only those who have been harmed. This got me thinking – if this is an organization that only works for the ‘good’ people, then what does that say about the nature of law when it come to those who represent the ‘bad guys’? Some friends of mine working in corporate law once joked that they were ‘corporate sell-outs.’ One friend got rather offended and said that it was just a job, and that he does what he does because it’s part of the job. And maybe that’s really all it is – a job.
And yet, I continue to have qualms about lawyers forgetting the importance of ethics and morality in their decision-making, especially when they do it in the name of “doing their job.”
Last year, I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a novel in which the main character, a lawyer, describes one of his professors as a man who listens to both the legal and moral argument in every case.  This discrepancy essentially pits moral growth against professional self-development, and causes every law student sometime during their career to ask him or herself: can one simultaneously develop as an individual and a professional, or is one hindered by the development of the other? Most seem to come to the conclusion that forfeiting certain morals in order to fulfill the requirements of the role is simply part of professional self-development in the field.
The problem with studying law in only an academic context, therefore, is that it’s much easier to bring in the moral argument. In the classroom setting, students deal with the theoretical and the hypothetical, and are quite distanced from the people whom the law affects. But in reality? Not so much. During my legal internships, I have come to better realize that the law isn’t always fair, and some of these decisions, however unfair, are sometimes necessary for the proper functioning of society. It addresses the discrepancy between the law in theory and the law in reality, and allows the law student to come to terms with this discrepancy. It is under such work placements that put the law student in a better position to understand the difference between what is fair and what is just, and possibly even more importantly, what is fair and what is necessary.
 Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (New York, Doubleday, 2015).