When I first came to Chicago, before school began, I met with a friend of a friend, a practicing lawyer. I shook his hand and sat down, ready to hear about his practice. Yet before I could get a full question out, he started telling me about his entire life. He was incredibly animated, which made his story difficult to follow. Also, I was not used to his level of profanity, so I was a bit taken aback. At one point, he suggested that I vigorously copulate with myself (I’m paraphrasing what he actually said).
He told me that there were two types of people in law school. There were those who become sexually aroused by legal doctrine (again, I’m paraphrasing, as his actual words involved suggestions of lewd physical activity). Then there is everyone else, including people like me, who do not derive erotic pleasure from the law. As such, I could work myself to death to try to compete with my colleagues and get an “A”, or strive for a “B” and use my spare time to build something, such as a business.
So when I got to law school, I didn’t expect to be at the top of the class. I did not get straight “A” grades in college. I had not written any involved analytical essays in a long time. My last essay had been about aspen trees, as part of my tree taxonomy class for my forestry major. Although I received above median grades my first quarter, I received median and below grades for my second and third quarters. At that point, my expectations became reality. I would not be at the top of the class.
I decided that I would follow the advice I received and focus not on competing for the academic gold star, but on building something. But rather than focus on building a business (an enterprise for which I lacked the desire, ambition, or talent), I set my attention on building the character and community of the school. “I may not be the smartest or receive the most prestigious awards, but I am going to try to be as kind as possible.” After all, Jesus commanded His disciples to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I was just trying to put into action His command to love, in an environment that is not always conducive to compassion.
At the graduating students dinner, the school gives out several awards. One of those awards is the Ann Watson Barber Outstanding Service Award, which is given to 3L students who have made an exceptional contribution to the quality of life at the Law School. I was fortunate enough to receive one of the awards. When I look at my colleagues who have received the award, both from my class year and prior years, I am humbled and honored to be counted in their company, not to mention the many others who have also contributed to the vibrancy of the school.
After the dinner, I ran into a couple classmates near the lockers. One of them congratulated me on the award, gave me a hug, and told me that I deserved it. Another told me, “Joel, you’re one of the people that make the law school a happier place.”
Looking back on my time, perhaps there are ways that I could have done things differently. Perhaps I could have been involved with other student organizations, or approached academics differently, or engaged more with the neighborhood outside of the law school. But even still, I am satisfied with my time at the school. I did my best to embody my beliefs, both in my contributions to the Chicago Law Foundation as well as my individual interactions with people. I believe that all people are made in the Image of God, b’tzelem Elohim, Imago Dei. All people are deserving of dignity, honor, and worth. I’m still working with that truth, as that truth works in me. I know that I am far from fully embracing it. Yet I believe that these past three years have helped me come a little bit closer to it.
To my former classmates and now colleagues, I thank you for the ways that you have taught me, challenged me, and encouraged me these past three years. I especially thank you for how you have supported me in finding my voice in writing. Even though I know that we don’t come from the same place or see through the same lenses, I am glad that you encouraged me to keep writing.
And as many of us begin our professional journeys in the coming weeks (as some of our colleagues have already done so), I hope that we will all continue to grow in insight, compassion, and maturity. Moreover, regardless of our respective career paths, I hope that we are able to use our skills and our voices to help restore dignity, honor, and worth for those that are discarded and abandoned in our world. Lawyers cannot save the world, but we can help mend it. When the wounded and vulnerable come to us for help, let us say, “I see you, I am here for you, and I will help you.”