Commentary: Law is the great lever of progress

By Nicholas W. Allard

Long ago, Archimedes said “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world.”  The ancient Greek scientist, mathematician and inventor was talking about his discovery of the mechanics of moving heavy objects with small forces.

His vivid words about the laws of physics also are an apt description about how throughout history, law has been a great lever advancing society on a long upward arc of progress.  Lawyers standing on the firm ground of truth and facts have moved society forward toward justice, equality and freedom.  Yet much work remains to be done. 

For starters, 21st century lawyers will still need to continue to fulfill their public duty in the service of others to deliver the promise of the Constitution to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

We live at a time when our free democratic, civilized way of life based on law and justice faces severe threats on many fronts. Good, socially responsible lawyers are needed as much as ever to protect people and society from harm and find new solutions to old problems.

All across America, and throughout the world, people are fighting over nothing less than the future of democracy, the future of humanity. We are involved, for example, in historic battles over democracy, individual rights and liberties, globalism and the environment and the rule of law. 

The outcomes of these struggles will determine whether the fundamental values, norms, and institutions which have been vital to empowering people and improving the human condition will continue to evolve and endure. 

If not, instead we could fall into a dark dystopian world dominated by power, violence, privilege, immorality and serendipitous happenstance. Soon we also will learn whether we can discover the way and the will to stop poisoning our air and water and burying the living earth and sea under our garbage.

It is neither grandiose nor new to expect lawyers to deal with such large contemporary challenges. Lawyers can advance the public interest in myriad roles: as architects of economic opportunity, peacemakers at home and abroad, builders of bridges over chasms of differences no matter how wide and deep, and defenders of liberty and equal justice for all. Legal training historically also has been one of the most useful paths for participating in politics and governance. 

Newly minted and aspiring lawyers can be encouraged not to be overwhelmed as they face daunting, but not insurmountable challenges. There are many reminders of the epic role that law has played in saving mankind from its worst nightmares, and how law helps our dreams and ambitions come true. 

In this vein, young lawyers are taught, for example, of the women’s suffrage movement that led to the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote 100 years ago, the Nuremburg trials after World War II that began to hold the villains of the Holocaust accountable for their crimes against the human race, the genesis of the idea that every person is entitled to four freedoms that ultimately was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations, and the judicial and legislative stepping stones of the movements that have so far brought us closer to the still not fully realized goals of racial and social justice.

Obviously, the work of lawyers making good use of the great lever of law is unfinished.  Discrimination of all sorts against those who are different persists while the benefits of equal justice under the rule of law still have not been extended universally. 

And so the “cause endures.” We still experience the shocking impact of anti-Semitism, other religious bigotry and racism in the United States and abroad, as well as the spread of violence and anarchy in the name of religious extremism around the world.  We also see the disturbing reappearance of nativism and xenophobia while the heartbreaking, haunting plight mounts of homeless and nationless migrants and refugees. 

Sadly in America, we have been experiencing the growth of distrust, fear and injury in our communities sometimes pitting people against protectors and neighbors against each other.  All too often we learn of sexual crimes, exploitation and misconduct, and feel the pain of gun violence wreaking mayhem in homes, schools, workplaces, theaters, clubs, shopping venues and all kinds of public places, even where we gather to pray.  And we witness the growing economic gap between those of means and those with serious needs. 

Meanwhile, the fabric of existing law and regulation is stretched to its limit by continuous accelerating transformational change brought on by disruptive technology, heightened competitive and consumer centric economic forces, and the increasingly complex trans-border and polycentric nature of the world we live in.  Consequently new legal fields are rapidly emerging.  Many arise from “STEM” discoveries that might have prompted Archimedes to yell “Eureka!”  This phenomenon creates tremendous opportunities for new lawyers who possess a wide variety of talents in fields such as:

 - Privacy and cyber security in a digital interconnected world in which new advances such as facial recognition technology take law into unchartered territory. 

 - Cutting edge financial mechanisms such as cryptocurrency, blockchain and bitcoin.

 - Feeding people, powering communities and creating so-called “Smart Cities” while keeping the earth’s environment in balance and sustainable.

 - Artificial intelligence and virtual reality and debates over whether robots deserve rights and should overtake the work of humans.

 - Drones, driverless vehicles, and electric shared scooters.

 - Changing norms relating to cannabis, sports betting and gaming of all sorts.

 - Advances in medicine and the quest for affordable better healthcare while attacking addiction crises, preventing pandemics, and promoting mental health.

 - Biomedical breakthroughs which revolutionize the ability to predict and even shape the nature and future of individual human beings. 

 - Solving how to provide the affordable quality legal services that most people need and close the gap in public access to justice. 

It is indeed good news that all across the United States, law schools are developing innovative ways to better prepare students for the new world of law. Students no longer have to wait until graduation to get terrific practical experience that complements both their classroom instruction on fundamentals and their essential exposure to critical thinking and legal scholarship.

Nor do law students have to wait to work outside school walls on the issues of our day.  It is now commonplace for law students and faculty to be in the front lines helping immigrants at the border, tending to storm and disaster victims, aiding victims of violence and sex crimes, and representing the underrepresented and less privileged in criminal and civil matters of all kinds.

Law schools also are developing new ways to equip students to deal with uncertainty, to use their imagination, to focus on opportunity and not only risk, and to engage in teamwork. Teaching how to meet the unique legal needs of entrepreneurs and startups is increasingly prevalent.  In other words, the law school curriculum is evolving to educate students not only for a job, but for any future job that fits their passion and ability, and to solve legal problems that are not yet known. 

If someone understandably wonders whether it is realistic for tomorrow’s lawyers to make a dent in the tough problems we face, they can find an answer in the words of Senator Robert F. Kennedy: 

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a (person) stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (they) send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”.

Individually and collectively lawyers will continue in their dual private and public roles to make the world a better place using the most powerful tool known to mankind, a legally trained mind.

Nicholas W. Allard is professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. He served as dean from July 2012 to June 2018 and as president from July 2014 to June 2018. At the law school, he teaches courses on Government Advocacy, Privacy Law in a Digital World, and Introduction to Legal Process. He also serves as senior counsel in the Public Policy and Regulation practice at Dentons, a global law firm with presence in more than 50 countries.