This I Believe

Joseph - Norman, Oklahoma
Entered on February 23, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
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The Other Side

As a law professor, I’m never sure what side of an argument I’m going to take when I walk into class, but I’m always sure which side it will be. The other side—the side students don’t take. Why? Because I believe my most important responsibility is not to teach future lawyers the answer under the law, but to make them less certain there is an answer.

This makes them better lawyers. Any attorney who sees only her side of a case will blind herself to its holes. Only by challenging her own views as ruthlessly as possible can she see why they may need defending, and whether they are worth defending. Moreover, any lawyer who acknowledges only one side will not persuade a judge who worries about the other. As I tell my students, arguing only strengths shows weakness, while overcoming weaknesses shows strength.

Some of my students will become judges themselves. They especially need to develop “a habit of understanding before disagreeing.” Justice John Paul Stevens ascribed this habit to his former boss, Justice Wiley Rutledge. He also impressed it onto former law clerks like me by his own example. I witnessed justice prevailing in his chambers not because he always reached the “right” result, but because he always gave every side a full and fair shake. Even with more than three decades of judging under his belt, he always read the briefs and lower court opinions meticulously, and listened with care to everything the lawyers, his law clerks, and his colleagues had to say.

I hope to instill the same habit not just in my students, but also in my children. Goodness knows they will need it. They will inherit global problems like terrorism and climate change that will require greater appreciation rather than depreciation of inconvenient truths. They will face personal issues and peer pressures that may leap off my Richter scale of experiences. Even if I had all the answers, I know they will not always ask me for them. My best hope is that they will learn to question their own answers, and not fear where that may lead them.

John Stuart Mill once wrote that we have nothing to fear from contrary opinions. If they are right, we lose “the opportunity of exchanging error for truth.” And if they are wrong, we lose “what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” That wisdom is worth the price of law school. If I teach it year after year, I might just develop a habit of practicing what I preach. Goodness knows I will need it when my toddlers become teens.