Addition By Subtraction

Robert Capa 937

Last week, I wrote a letter to The Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper. I wrote the first bit of it on the plane to London when I couldn’t sleep, and then the rest of it the following night at 4am after a night of robust engagement with cocktails.  The next afternoon, when I woke up, I read it through and removed some of the preachier bits. I think that made it better. I often tell some students who, like me, tend to write long, that their essay will find its strength in what it removes. I think the shorter version of the essay is better, but in case you’re curious about the whole thing, here it is.

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, and 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, did not believe that HIV caused AIDS. It was a traumatic and difficult case, and we lost over and over before we finally won a result and began changing that policy. 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; I did it because I was a lawyer.

Throughout my time in Cape Town and Johannesburg, I worked to varying degrees on cases involving –to name but a few- a child whose forearms had to be amputated because his sadistic parents had lashed his tiny hands over and over with leather straps until they became infected and necrotic, an education rights case trying to help a massively underfunded rural school and a lawsuit brought by a man who’d been beaten up by the police. In the course of this work, I encountered profound depths of personal tragedy, an uncaring system, and the difficult knowledge that even my most optimistic aspirations for the people, the policies, and system would involve many defeats before we achieved anything like a real victory. It was never easy, but I did it because I was a lawyer.

So, now I read that Harvard Law students are demanding an extension on their exams because the trauma of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York have 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? Really?!?) 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 your ability to do so. If you cannot handle this moment, you’re not ready for life as a lawyer.

This is doubly true for those people who want to dedicate some or all of their careers to civil rights advocacy. An exasperated friend who has practiced civil rights law for the last fifteen years directly told me that he would never hire anyone who felt the need to delay exams because of Ferguson-related trauma. He told me bluntly, “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 injustices of Ferguson and Staten Island have certainly been hard on us, but we must push forward. So far, there have been mass demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience throughout the nation. This level of concern is refreshing, but let us be clear: they have not yet accomplished anything beyond a promise for body cameras on cops. This is because a march doesn’t push back, a demonstration meets no resistance, and civil disobedience does not in itself bring about policy change. In other words, all of the hard work lies ahead. If this movement is to avoid the comprehensive failure of the last social uprising –Occupy Wall Street- then it must at some point begin engaging in difficult fights at the level of policy, advocacy, and, yes, client representation. History tells us that this will be hard work, and that along the way injustice will win more than it loses. This fight requires men and women of substance and grit. There is nothing about the demand for exam extensions that evidences the requisite level of toughness for the fight to come. Respectfully, Harvard Law students, we need people made of sterner stuff.

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 by that 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.
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 suggestion: 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 florists 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. And, more pointedly, if the recent injustices have left you emotionally or intellectually prostrate, then you are not ready for the fights to come, and we would be better off without your particular brand of weakness infecting the movement with ineffectualness.

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 have to take their exams.


-Brian Tangang Fobi, JD/Ph.D.

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