U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny spoke at the recent memorial service for Jacob Zeldes, a Bridgeport lawyer many considered the dean of Connecticut criminal law.
The judge ended on a personal note.
Chatigny said he had encouraged his son to pursue a legal career, and this fall, the young man will start his first year of law school. When they heard this, Chatigny said, some of his lawyer friends cringed. They said that if he had influenced his son’s choice, he had done him no favor.
It’s no secret that there are more students graduating from law school than there are law jobs. But do those statistics make pursuing law a choice to cringe about?
There are other ways to look at this.
Perhaps at no time in history has the practice been undergoing so much change. It’s poised for a lot more.
A major institution undergoing big changes can be a dangerous thing, but it’s also ripe with opportunity. Historically, the practice of law has been pretty stodgy, embracing tradition and resisting the new almost as a point of honor. (It’s no secret that some senior partners in prestigious law firms have almost prided themselves in their technological illiteracy.)
But right now, there’s a mountain of important legal problems awaiting energetic lawyers. At the base of the pyramid of need, there’s a huge number of Connecticut’s middle class and poor who cannot get the everyday legal advice and services they need.
There are opportunities here for technology-assisted innovation. Ultimately, the entrepreneurial lawyers who manage to address this need will both do good and do well.
In his comments at the memorial, Chatigny said that when he speaks to young lawyers, he attempts to inspire them to see the law as a high calling and a privilege.
Some callings demand a vow of poverty. Answering the calling of the law hasn’t become quite that self-sacrificing yet. But it wouldn’t be a calling if its only rewards were material.
At the very highest levels of the law, there is much work to be done.
Many of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court precedents were decided generations ago, when the applicable technology was much different. People struggle to wrap their minds around the constitutional implications of web-connected government surveillance, and the leading case involves an old-fashioned telephone booth.
Courts are struggling to keep current. As the beehive of our society evolves, it is abuzz with new languages and new tools, like social media. New and uncharted territory is opening up as courts begin attempting to figure out when, for example, a particularly nasty tweet becomes a criminal act. When does a song to an ex-wife, posted on YouTube, become a matter for the local prosecutor and a criminal jury?
The judges who have to address these issues need all the help they can get, particularly from young lawyers.
One of the new realms to explored and tame are the cobwebbed reaches of the court system itself.
At their worst, the courts might as well be working with candle-lit scrolls of papyrus and reckoning on an abacus, but they can be surprisingly open at other times.
Chatigny, during a 2013 visit with the dying Jack Zeldes, was able to listen to an archival audiotape of Zeldes in 1956 arguing at the Supreme Court. Zeldes was being questioned by Justice Felix Frankfurter, who wrote the majority opinion in a case that spared Zeldes’ client’s life.
Revisiting this moment was possible only because forward-looking souls at the Supreme Court decided to record oral arguments, and later, to release them to the public, for the sake of history and transparency.
Maybe, if enough 21st century-minded people prevail, the world will be able to view recorded Supreme Court oral arguments on video for the first time.
It may be that those who cringe at the idea of a young person becoming a lawyer feel that the best days of legal practice are in the past. Old people are known to talk that way.
People like Chatigny should continue to inspire the young to know that the law can be a noble profession and a worthy calling.
For those who make this a reality, the practice of law has bright days ahead.