Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Do You Care About What You Do?

"We are living in a moment of time, the first moment of time, when a billion people are connected, when your work is judged (more than ever before) based on what you do rather than who you are, and when credentials, access to capital, and raw power have been dwarfed by the simple question "Do you care about what you do?  We built this world for you.  Not so you would watch more online videos, keep up on your feeds, and LOL with your high school friends.  We built it so you could do what you're capable of.  Without apology and without excuse.  Go."  Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception.

My little law school, Appalachian School of Law (ASL), sets itself apart from the crowd in several ways, but perhaps its unique feature is a fearless bet on students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend professional school.  We tell them: "Go."  Our students, often showing a poorer performance on the standardized admission exam, show great promise as they master the knowledge, skills, and professional values taught by our faculty, staff, and alumni.  Most of our students still flow in from the surrounding Appalachian Mountains or the adjacent plateaus of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee.  Many of them are the first person in their immediate families to earn a college or graduate degree.  We are lifting students from proud working class backgrounds into the professional world with all the advantages that world offers.    

As a current member of the Admission's Committee, I am struck by the courage applicants show in overcoming obstacles they have faced.  Some have experienced severe trauma -- rape, accidents, illnesses, death of a close loved-one, an abusive or alcoholic parent, homelessness, and immigration with the challenges of adapting to a new culture and learning a new language.  As human beings tend to do, they take these hardships and forge a strong will to change the world with their energy, intelligence, commitment, and work.  In a very short time, a number of our graduates have become prosecutors, public defenders, judges, state legislators, and other community leaders -- which reflects the mission of our school.

In 2005, of the 250 counties in the U.S. with the lowest per capita incomes, Kentucky claimed thirty-five of those counties.  Only Texas, a much larger state, had as many people living in impoverished counties.  Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia added another twenty-four counties to this list.  Thus, the region ASL serves includes 23 percent of the poorest counties in the United States.

The school's founders believed that lawyers educated within the region, who were steeped in notions of professional service, would more likely stay in and provide service to the people of the region.  Graduates have validated that belief.   In 2008, approximately half of our alumni were employed in small law firms in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

Overall, the founders envisioned a graduate who would emphasize problem-solving skills and adhere to high professional ethics.  The graduates would represent a throw back to an earlier generation of lawyers, who were more than hired guns, and instead were esteemed leaders in their local communities.  We call these types of lawyers “community-based generalists.”

My contacts with alumni through my Facebook page, inspire me daily.  They have bought houses, married, started families, found meaningful jobs, and played hard.  They are courageously creating the lives they dream, despite a sour job market for new grads and a debt load often called "crushing."  They serve the public or clients and, with some exceptions, seem to do it with great joy.   I sense that they care deeply about what they do.

Before I became a law professor, I worked for 20 years in the private practice of law as an energy lawyer and then a commercial litigator.  The work was exhausting many days, but also intellectually challenging and satisfying on many levels.  I was lucky to have jobs in which I cared deeply about our clients and knew that I made a positive contribution to the collective good.  Most days, I arrived at the office excited, energized, and  thrilled by the opportunities the day might bring.  I cared a great deal about what I did.

Now, I have the rare pleasure of engaging with young professionals as a law professor.  I can't imagine a better job.  I love to see them grow in competence and confidence.  I love to see their courage and compassion.  I can't wait to see what they decide to care about -- what art they decide to create.


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