On lawyers, power and Nelson Mandela

I have, not surprisingly, been musing about lawyers, after the death of one of my heroes.

Nelson Mandela was, of course, so much more than a lawyer but he did practice law for many years. And I notice that several outstanding individuals who fought for social justice previously practised as lawyers. Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, Fidel Castro (!), Thatcher (oh no, forget that last one…). Is this just chance?

It seems to me that it is, in part at least, to do with power. As a lawyer you get to see how power dynamics play out in society. This has a couple of consequences – it gives you power in your own right (the power of knowledge) and it obliges you to make a choice about where to place yourself – on the side of the oppressors or the oppressed.

Admittedly it is a bit simplistic (OK – very simplistic) to see our society as divided into the oppressed and the oppressors, the haves and have-nots, the powerful and powerless. Yet it can be illuminating. And if it is good enough for Paolo Freire, it is good enough for me (if you don’t know it, I recommend his book “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”).

From this perspective, most key political events – new laws, privatisations and nationalisations, strikes, wars – are a playing out of the on-going struggle between the powerless and the powerful for supremacy. Law is one of the principal arenas where the battle is waged. In a healthy society, the law is a codified version of moral standards of the people. It elevates them from nice things to do, making them enforceable by the state or by one person against another. It is a powerful statement about what is important to the people, and is backed up by the whole apparatus of the state. Lawyers hold the key to the law – they are the gate-keepers to power. From this vantage point they get to see what lies behind the paraphernalia that power often adopts to justify its exercise.

Inevitably (particularly in these days of ever-reducing legal aid budgets) the haves find it easier than the have-nots to get the backing of the law – they can afford the best lawyers. What’s more, they have better access to the law-makers too and are able to shape it in their own image. So over time, until it is overturned in a revolution, the law becomes less about the moral code of the people and more about the means of domination by one group by another. Indeed these days, as Polly Higgins (another ex-lawyer) has pointed out, the law is among other things used as a means and a justification for humans to exert their domination over the non-human world.

In such a society, lawyers can easily end up as instruments of the powerful. Some seek to make up for this by doing some free work on the side, by giving some of their earnings to charity or finding some other way of holding onto their integrity. Others don’t resist – they happily adopt the trappings of the powerful. Some even change roles and openly seek power (a disproportionate number of British MPs are ex-lawyers).

Others, though, make a different choice. They choose to serve higher laws rather than man-made ones, and take up arms with the oppressed. They offer up their skills, their knowledge, their own personal power, pursuing justice with all their hearts. They may not get rich, or fat, or comfortable this way. Indeed, they often go through considerable sufferings, financial and other hardships, or may even be put in prison for standing up for what they believe. But in the end they are usually vindicated. History is kind to the Mandelas, Gandhis and Lincolns while those who tamely went along with the oppressors are long forgotten.

You must have surely spotted by now my deep admiration for these individuals. I don’t seek to compare the work I do with the work of these remarkable individuals. I simply note that the drivers that pushed them to take massive risks, to make astonishing sacrifices, are the ones that motivate me too – a passion for justice, a sense of fairness, a belief in the underlying equality (but not sameness) of all, human and non-human.

And I take great joy in it. Joy, as it happens, is one thing that often marks the individuals who have taken such a step. Many who met Mandela or Gandhi talk about this quality of theirs. And is it so surprising? What could be more meaningful, more essentially joyful, than to do something worthwhile with your life. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Nelson – I salute you.