Ross Essay Contest

The Rule of Man: A Film Recommendation Leads to a Father's Enduring Lesson

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This year’s Ross Essay Contest—asking ABA members to address the topic “Why do you believe the legal profession is the greatest profession in the world?”—brought in so many good entries that we have several we want to share in the coming weeks. The contest and $5,000 grand prize is supported by a trust established in the 1930s by the late Judge Erskine M. Ross of Los Angeles. The contest is administered by the ABA Journal. A winner will be announced and published in the August magazine.

And now, here is one great read:

In 1995, while I was in my first year of law school, I saw the Russian movie Burnt by the Sun, which was based on a true story. In 1936, Col. Sergei Kotov, a revolutionary hero and champion of Stalin, was enjoying postrevolutionary life in the countryside. The movie opens with the local peasants calling on Col. Kotov’s celebrity status and concomitant authority to halt troops on exercise that were about to move across the fields and destroy the peasants’ crops. The movie ends, however, with Col. Kotov’s idyllic retirement and prestige coming to an end when Stalin orders his arrest under false charges, which leads to his execution. A person with such prestige was a threat to a tyrant.

I recommended the movie to my dad and, after he watched it, he sent me a letter that reflected on the opening scene of the movie. He reflected on how Col. Kotov symbolized the rule of man and the complete destruction of the rule of law that resulted from the Bolshevik Revolution and the ascent of Stalin. In such a society the people had no recourse to law, no police, no courts, no lawyers, and no process that could prevent or remedy an injustice. Just their hero. In the end, however, the lack of the rule of law destroyed their hero. My dad ended his letter by encouraging me to “keep on lawyering.” He reminded me that every day that lawyers keep the process functioning reasonably well—win or lose—helps guard the rule of law.

That admonition was exactly what I needed to hear as the grind of law school—the reading, briefing, studying and outlining—had started to obscure the greater meaning of my chosen career path. I occasionally returned to that letter during my years in private practice and, now that I am a law professor, I have had occasion to share it with my students. For me, the final sentiment in the letter embodies why the legal profession is the greatest profession in the world. We have the great privilege, and the immense responsibility, of guarding the rule of law. This requires us to both protect the rule of law and, at times, to challenge it to ensure that it is fulfilling its role in an ever-changing world. Not only is this endeavor professionally and intellectually fulfilling on a personal level; but every day, no matter what kind of law each of us practices, we are a part of something that is much bigger than ourselves and even our clients.

Whether a person is a corporate lawyer who structures a deal, a public defender who provides a criminal defendant with representation, an activist lawyer who challenges the law, a real estate lawyer who assists in the purchase of a first home, an estate planning lawyer who ensures a succession of assets, a litigator who zealously advocates in a case, or any other type of lawyer—each of us in our own way is part of the foundation of a system that strives to define people’s rights and obligations equitably and to provide them with a process to remedy an injustice when they are unfairly harmed. By guarding the rule of law, we make sure that justice is not subjugated to the whim of a tyrant or of any single individual. Who can think of a better reason to go to work each day?

Laurel Haskell is an assistant professor of law at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

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