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Bar News - October 17, 2008

President’s Perspective: Law in the Time of Politics


Ellen L. Arnold

As the national political party conventions passed across our television screens and filled our newspapers this summer—and now as we head towards the national election in a time of virtually unprecedented economic and political turmoil—I am reminded of the political context in which I made my decision to attend law school. Hard to believe how long ago that was, but it was a time heavily influenced by the politics of the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the 1968 conventions.

Though part of a by-gone era, the issues of those times are more similar than one might think to the current complex issues of national policy now under debate. It was a turbulent time of dynamic divergent views and activism. As a college student, I was infused with the righteousness of youth and a commitment to the protection of personal liberties and participatory democracy. In the aftermath of the Chicago 8 trial, which was my first real-life experience of the tension between politics and the law, and with images of Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom, I chose to join the legal profession because of its integral role in promoting change and protecting liberties in a fair, constructive, and consistent way. My story is undoubtedly similar to many of yours.

In the spring of 1970 as a student at Skidmore College, I was taking my first government course; where we read and analyzed appellate court decisions using the Socratic method. By far, this was my favorite class. It was taught by a feisty trial lawyer who could take any side of any issue and argue it persuasively. Success in his class required precise, critical thinking skills essential to the practice of law and he challenged many of my preconceived convictions, through argument and advocacy. Shortly into that semester, after the Kent State shootings, Skidmore went on strike to protest the Vietnam War and classes were replaced by rallies and speakers, including Abby Hoffman and Tom Hayden.

On one of those days, as I was crossing campus, I ran into my government professor and we began talking about national issues. He asked me what I planned to do after graduation and when he was not satisfied with my response, he asked me what I would do if I could do anything. I said that if I were a man, I would be a lawyer. He told me that women were going to law school and encouraged me to follow that path. The rest, as they say, is history.

At a time when I was told that as a woman I could not work as a stock broker and at a time when my family couldn’t understand why I wasn’t marrying a lawyer instead of becoming one, it was exciting to be part of the challenge to traditional convention.

The diversity of our current political candidates reflects, in part, the very real changes that have taken place—and what was true in the 70s remains true today. Lawyers are an integral part of creating change in the world, of protecting personal liberties, and of problem solving at the highest levels of society.

Lawyers play a significant role not only in our system of government, but also around the globe in the in a wide variety of ways: as public servants, volunteers, advocates, legislators, and judges, to name only a few. We are central to advancing causes and to the preservation and promotion of due process, justice, and the rule of law. Our commitment to helping those in need, preserving our Constitution, and protecting individual freedoms and rights in a manner that is rigorous, objective, fair, and consistent, is at the heart of what we do. Increasingly, we are called upon in innovative ways to help create solutions to political, policy, and economic issues beyond our borders. And, although we do it in vastly different and individual ways, as a group I suspect we contribute more than most professions.

In this time of intense political emotion, I am reminded of our ability to influence the world we live in. We are essential to educating the public, protecting individual rights and liberties, speaking out, and engaging in the protection and promotion of our system of justice and the role it plays in the lives of all citizens and in our system of government. We bring skills of analysis and critical thinking to the problems we are called upon to tackle. My choice of this profession was ignited by political fervor.

Whatever your reason for becoming part of the legal community, the political season serves as a reminder that while we’ve accomplished much, there is always more to do.

Ellen L. Arnold, associate general counsel at Dartmouth College, is 2008-2009 President of the New Hampshire Bar Association. She was admitted to the NH Bar in 1977.

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