The 2018 Midway Dinner

Professor Genevieve Lakier on the Rewards of Venturing North of the Midway

It is an honor and a pleasure to speak to you tonight, as part of the uniquely Chicago tradition of the Midway Dinner. It is particularly pleasurable for me to do it this year because I taught many of you last year when you were 1Ls but—because I was away on maternity leave in the fall—I haven’t had much opportunity to see you now that you are 2Ls. How is it going? I hope well.

I imagine for many of you, it is hard to believe that your law school experience is almost halfway over—that in just fifteen months you will be lawyers. I am sure for some of you, graduation still feels very far away. There are indeed still five more examination periods you have to get through before you get your diploma. I promise, though, that the time will speed by before you know it. There is a saying about being a parent that I think applies equally well to the life of a law student: namely, that the days are long but the years go by quickly.  Your jam-packed schedules—and, of course, the quarter system—make it difficult to stop and smell the roses, or take stock of where you are and where you are going. Which is one reason for this event.

The Midway Dinner is an event organized to celebrate your achievement in making it this far through law school, but also—by calling attention to the fact that you are midway through—to encourage you to use the rest of your time at the Law School wisely. More specifically, as Dean Miles explained, it is an event that it is intended to encourage you to take advantage of the rich bounty of classes that lie across the Midway. At least, that’s my job as the speaker, and it’s a task I am happy to perform because I come from across the Midway, in a sense.

I was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago years before I ever seriously considered going to law school or getting a job as a legal academic. I still vividly remember thinking of the Law School as a place that was very far away. It was in the dreaded hinterland otherwise known as “south of the Midway”—somewhere with no good food, where the buildings tended to be brutalist in their architectural style and there were no gargoyles to be found anywhere—in short, somewhere you would never go unless you had to.

Now although the food situation is definitely better in other parts of the university, and there are many gargoyles to be found in the main quads, you may feel much the same about going north of the Midway as I felt once long ago about going south. It may seem just “not worth it” to make the trek north if you don’t have to. And of course, for almost all of you, almost all of the time, you don’t have to. After all, it is not as if you lack for choice among the classes offered at the Law School. There are no shortage of interesting subjects you can learn about, or activities you can participate in, without having to leave the perimeter of the law school building.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t leave the perimeter of the Law School building and take advantage of the academic jewel box that is the rest of the university. This is obviously true for those of you who plan to practice a kind of law that requires subject-matter expertise in a non-law field. And it’s also true for those of you who have a passionate interest in a topic that is taught elsewhere in the university. It is likely that you will have no better opportunity in your life to learn about this topic from an expert than you do right now. Of course there are opportunity costs to taking a class merely because you are interested in it, but the gains you will receive from learning about something you are deeply interested in are likely to be significant. So if you have always wanted to know more about Japanese anime, or French opera, or the philosophy of science—you should go for it.

Even for those of you who don’t have any particular professional need to take a non-law school class and have not cultivated a burning passion for opera, or anime, or philosophy since you were a child, there is a good reason to take a non-Law School class, notwithstanding the hassle. You should do so because it will allow you to engage in a sophisticated way with modes of thought and practices of persuasion very different than the ones we lawyers employ. 

The forms of argument you learn at this Law School, the analytic and theoretical tools we train you to use, they are important, illuminating and powerful. That is why we teach you them.  We hope and believe that you will use them over the course of your career to the benefit of your clients, your community, and the world. But this doesn’t mean these modes of thought and argument are the only analytical tools that one can use to make sense of the world. There are many other ways of understanding—and persuading—than those that dominate in our classrooms.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. As I mentioned earlier, I was trained as an anthropologist before I was trained as a lawyer. And in my academic work, I try to bring the two disciplines into conversation with one another. Now, at first glance, you might not think this is a difficult thing to do. After all, the academic disciplines of anthropology and law have much in common. Anthropology is a discipline devoted to the study of how humans categorize and order their world, and so too, in a sense, is law. Moreover, one of the founding assumptions of the discipline of anthropology is that the categories that people rely upon to make sense of their world are a product of the social, political, and economic environment out of which they emerge, and shape that environment in turn. This is the same assumption that undergirds most of the species of legal realism taught at this law school.

And yet, anthropology is a fundamentally anti-normative discipline. That means anthropologists believe that their job as academics is not to make recommendations about how people should think, or what they should do.  It is simply to understand what people think, and what they do, and why they think that or do that, as completely as possible. In fact, anthropologists believe that making judgments about what people should do or how they should think prevents the researcher from being able to fully understand the cultural schema they study. Hence anthropologists are for the most part strongly discouraged from bringing a normative lens to bear on their work.

As I am sure you all well know by now, this makes the practice of anthropology very different from the practice of law. Law is after all a fundamentally normative profession. As lawyers, we are always telling judges, clients, legislatures what they should do, and how they should think. And in your classes here, you are constantly being called upon to critically evaluate the efficacy, or equity, or practicality, of whatever doctrine or institution you are studying: you are constantly being asked to make a normative judgment about something or other, even if that judgment is informed in different contexts by different kinds of considerations. This is, I will say—speaking as a lawyer now—for the most part a good thing. To the extent our profession helps shape the rules that govern our collective life, we should want those who practice it—that means you—to be thoughtful, careful, and rigorous about the rules you advocate for and help create. But I am also an anthropologist; I recognize that rushing too quickly to judgment can interfere with an adequate understanding of what it is you judge. That it can lead you to reach the wrong conclusion.

Taking a class in one of the non-normative fields beyond the Law School may not inoculate you from ever rushing to judgment too quickly. That I am afraid may be an inevitable human failing. But it may give you a better appreciation of the complexity of the social and political world that law affects and is in turn affected by. And it may make you more reflective about the assumptions that undergird, and the biases that inform, normative legal arguments.

To give only one example of what I mean, legal arguments tend to focus almost entirely on the question of whether there is or should be, a legal rule. It is not hard to understand why! But as anthropologists, or sociologists, or historians will tell you: the question of whether a legal rule permits a given action is only the first question we must ask when attempting to understand its normative as well as its social or historical significance. Too much focus on what the legal rules say can blind you to this fact.

I think about this a lot when engaging with normative arguments about speech. As I am sure you all know, we are in the midst of an intense national conversation about what our collective speech norms should be. And yet this debate tends to focus almost entirely on what the First Amendment, and other relevant laws, permit or should permit. This is obviously an important question. Yet what an anthropologist or historian or sociologist would tell you is that this is only the beginning of the inquiry: that in order to fully understand the consequences of speech, we need to know about a great deal more than just the legal rules—although they are undoubtedly important. We need to know what it means to speak; what the economic and social and political effects of different kinds of speech may be. And we need to know about the cultural, economic, and political environment in which speech occurs—to understand why people speak, and why they do not. Only once we know the answer to these questions can we truly grasp the normative implications of the decision to speak, or not to speak. And who knows? doing so may in turn inform our understanding of what the legal rules should be.

So I encourage you to take non-law school classes not just because doing so will make you a more well-rounded person—which it will!—but because doing so may make you a better lawyer.

As a final example of why it is you might want to dip your toes into interdisciplinary waters during your remaining time at the University, I thought I would close by telling you about my favorite anthropologist, Benjamin Lee Whorf.  Whorf is now one of the most respected linguistic anthropologists of the early twentieth century but he was for most of his life an amateur. Although he spent his evenings studying the complexities of Native American languages, he spent his days working as a fire engineer at the Hartford Insurance Company.

It was in fact, Whorf later explained, his work as a fire engineer at the Hartford Insurance Company that got him interested in linguistic anthropology. This was because, when he inspected factories insured by the company, Whorf noted an interesting thing: namely, that how workers in the factory described the environment they worked in affected the level of care they took to prevent fires. When working around drums of gasoline that they recognized as “full”, workers tended to be careful to avoid smoking or tossing cigarette stubs. But when working around drums that they considered “empty” workers tended to be much less careful—even though these drums were in many respects much more dangerous, because they contained, instead of gasoline, explosive vapor. Whorf concluded from this that fire inspectors should pay much more attention to the language that factory workers used to describe their environment when drawing up fire safety recommendations for those factories. And Whorf boasted of the excellent record of fire prevention that he enjoyed in his day job as a result of his careful attention to the linguistic patterns of the workers.

Now I have not been able to verify Whorf’s claim that his detailed analysis of the linguistic patterns of the workers at the factories he insured helped him to better prevent fire; although I will note that by the end of his life, he had attained the high position of Vice President of the Hartford Insurance Company. So someone at the company surely thought he did a good job. Whorf’s story nevertheless provides a good illustration of how pausing to understand the environment in which we operate can lead us to better, more interesting and innovative, ideas about how to regulate it.

I want to be clear: I am not saying here that taking a class across the Midway will make you an ace fire inspector. Probably not! I am suggesting, however, that it will give you a new perspective on what is going to be your day job pretty soon: namely, being a lawyer. So although it may seem a hassle to leave all the friendly faces in this room, and brave the wind on the Midway, I urge you to be adventurous; to take classes that ask questions you are not accustomed to asking. And then to bring the insights you gain from doing so back to the Law School, to enrich us all.

Legal education