What is a lawyer?

Michael Coper
Emeritus Professor Michael Coper

In these days of Trumpian pragmatism, it is more important than ever that law schools in Australia and around the world continue to produce these men and women of principle and purpose.

Emeritus Professor Michael Coper was shocked to encounter widespread misconceptions and stereotypes about law and lawyers when he became Dean of the ANU College of Law in 1998.

It was one thing for these views to abound in the community – but it struck me that it was quite another for them to be shared by highly educated colleagues and, in some cases, key university decision makers.

The stereotypes came in many shapes and forms, from lawyers as nit-picking technocrats, retarders of progress and free riders who neither create wealth nor produce anything tangible or useful for society, to — as one senior administrator put it to me — legal education as the rote learning of a bunch of rules.

Yet one has only to stop and think for a micro-second about the role of law in society to realise that law sits comfortably alongside history, philosophy, political science and other like disciplines as a way of describing, analysing, understanding, critiquing and improving the world we live in.

Civil society is built on respect for the rule of law and pursuit of the ideals of equality, fairness, justice and human dignity. The law can impede or promote these ideals, but study of it is an intellectual endeavour at the very core of the humanities and social sciences.

Of course, things are more complicated than this. Law has always had a practical side too. So much so that, for many years, training to be a lawyer took place outside a university context altogether, by way of an apprenticeship. Even when law schools were established to professionalise that training, the emphasis fell naturally on the practical rather than the intellectual.

The great American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes observed more than 100 years ago that the study of law needs more theory not less. It has taken a long time for law schools to seriously combine, as they now have, their applied focus with the academic study of law as a social, economic, political and philosophical phenomenon.

However, the tension persists today and plays out in many different ways. Among students, different personality types are drawn to one aspect or the other, taking satisfaction either from learning about the law in its practical application or from understanding law as an end in itself.

Somewhere in the middle are the many students who acquire generic skills from their study – skills of research, analysis, critical thinking, communication and advocacy – that equip them for careers way beyond the law.

The study of law is therefore complex and multifaceted.

The multiplicity of reasons why students are attracted to the study of law reflect this complexity.

At one extreme, some seem drawn to, and to take comfort from, the certainty, stability and predictability that a legal system strives to bring to human affairs. At the other extreme, some see law as an instrument for social change and want only to use it to make the world a better place.

The latter aspiration is as challenging as the former is unattainable. Both sets of students – the conservatives and the idealists – have to come to terms with this. But law is all of these things: we expect it simultaneously to provide constancy and to facilitate change.

In this context, what is a lawyer? Hopefully, none of the stereotypes I encountered in 1998! Rather, it is someone who, through years of study, reflection and experience, has the insight and skills to make a contribution, however particularised, to achieving the multiple and sometimes contradictory goals of the law and the legal system, thereby strengthening the underpinning, and the progress, of civil society.

In these days of Trumpian pragmatism, it is more important than ever that law schools in Australia and around the world continue to produce these men and women of principle and purpose.

Emeritus Professor Michael Coper was the longest serving Dean of the ANU College of Law (1998-2012).

This article originally appeared in the ANU Reporter

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team