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I Wish I’d Known


Deval Patrick is governor of Massachusetts and served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under President Clinton. He is his state’s first African American governor and the nation’s first African American governor to be re-elected. Patrick graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. After graduation, he practiced law with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. At other points in his legal career, Patrick was named partner at a Boston law firm and served as a vice president and general counsel for Texaco and Coca-Cola.

Legal decisions have real human consequences.

I wish I had known how much of my legal education would happen outside the classroom. Law school, particularly in the first year, does an excellent job of teaching you the finer points of complex procedure and abstract formalities. But learning to “spot the issue” and cramming for exams will only take you so far. My law school professors could only point me toward the path to becoming a lawyer, an advocate, and, ultimately, a public servant. Following that path meant stepping out of the classroom and into the community.

Law, like government, only matters at the point where it touches people. It was my work at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau that helped me connect what I was learning in the classroom with the real “life” of the law, found in indigent communities served by our group of young, idealistic lawyers-to-be. My early experiences advocating on behalf of folks who had just about exhausted all hope convinced me that there was more to being a lawyer than footnotes and citations. The courtroom became an arena for acting on principles and striving toward justice. Being guided by the right values mattered more than having all the answers—a lesson I learned early on that has guided me ever since.

Legal decisions have real human consequences. Buried under a mound of cases and statutes, it’s easy to lose sight of what a given decision actually means for the lives of individuals who were wronged or did wrong. Gaining that perspective, for me, required leaving the classroom. It was a first step into a system of justice that is far from perfect but that is based on the values of equality, opportunity, and fair play that define us as Americans. And striving toward those ideals is the seminar we’re all enrolled in.

Vol. 41 No. 5

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.

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