Lawyers as heroes

Some clients are heroes—or plausibly can be portrayed as heroes in legal briefs. The lawyers remain in the background, telling the story without inserting themselves into it.

Another type of legal writing I study and teach is legal blogging. What I’ve noticed in reading lots and lots of legal blogs is that some lawyers portray themselves as heroes. More than scattering in a few personal pronouns for personal interest, sometimes I see lawyers telling a story with themselves as protagonist, fighting a particular battle or war for years.

This type of blogging narrative tends to crop up in areas where the lawyer represents individuals against the government or large well-organized business sectors. Two areas that come immediately to mind are criminal defense and immigration.

My practice background was in commercial litigation and intellectual property. It was certainly nice to help clients solve problems and navigate disputes. I did help small businesses fend off David-v-Goliath-like situations. I did work with people who cared very much about what happened to them. But at the end of the day, it was business litigation. All of these clients had other things they could do if their very worst outcome happened in whatever lawsuit they faced.

That background made it hard for me to truly get it when lawyers blogged as though they were heroes in an epic struggle. It seemed like there was a lot more lawyer than client in some of these blogs. Why is their own battle and their own story so important that they could explicitly put themselves at the center of it? I suspected a power imbalance, letting the lawyer subordinate the client’s story to the lawyer’s. I suspected ego.

The events of this weekend with the Executive Order on immigration helped me understand.

Lawyers swarmed the airports with their laptops, drafting habeas motions:

Stories of the clients were told, but only those we could actually see:

Many were literally locked in the so-called green room at Customs. Unable to communicate. Prevented from seeing a lawyer. Prevented from knowing that lawyers were outside trying to represent them. Told that the person to talk to about what was happening was President T.

The lawyers doing the work didn’t stop and tweet #habeasselfie or whatever. But someone took their picture. They were portrayed on Twitter and elsewhere as heroes.

And that helped me understand how such a lawyer would, eventually, in reflecting on their work, naturally tell a story in which they are the hero.

The clients are certainly heroic and bear the real burden of all of this. But they’re locked away and unseen, perhaps un-seeable. The lawyer works basically alone. (Maybe lawyers got such a reputation boost from this weekend not only because of the actual exigency and work, but because the photos showed them working so openly in teams bound by ethics and purpose.)

If the lawyer’s work is successful, the client emerges from the maws of the state. At that point, the client resumes their own heroic journey. But the lawyer has a story to tell too.

With this weekend’s airport images of lawyers at their laptops, holding signs offering legal help, and standing up to agents claiming “orders” prevented lawyers from seeing detainees, we got a glimpse of how a lawyer’s day-to-day experience may lead to a heroic narrative—and how that narrative can in fact be justified.

For more on telling the client’s story as a heroic journey, see Ruth Anne Robbins, Harry Potter, Ruby Slippers, and Merlin: Telling the Client’s Story Using the Characters and Paradigm of the Archetypal Hero’s Journey (Seattle U. L. Rev. 2006).

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