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'United We Stand': Lawyers must play crucial role in bringing our nation together

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Nicholas W. Allard. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas W. Allard)

Unity is strength. The wisdom of that truth has been known since ancient times as reflected in Greek fables, such as Aesop's tales about The Four Oxen and the Lion and The Bundle of Sticks, and Chinese stories, such as The Five Chinese Brothers.

A version appears as a political warning and a moral parable three times in the Christian Bible gospels of Mark (3:25), Matthew (12:25) and Luke (11:17)—translated from the original Greek as: “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand,” and “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”

In concept and practice, such universally applicable proverbs have sustained and guided modern democracies from their infancy through frighteningly perilous times.

Yet today, Americans are “observing in the breach” the unity aphorism that has been invoked continuously by revolutionary patriots, the founders, found its place in state flags and mottos, and was memorably spoken by presidents such as Abraham Lincoln (“A house divided cannot stand.”) and George W. Bush (“I am a uniter, not a divider.”). It is a phrase that has made its way into the lyrics of many popular songs, including even Taylor Swift’s “Death by a Thousand Cuts.”

While easy to articulate as a feel-good bromide, convincing our divided peoples to come together and work for the common good has always been very hard and, at present, is painfully difficult if not seemingly impossible.

Consequently, for long stretches of time, we can feel engulfed by darkness. The gloomy dog of depressing pessimism, if not despair, is fed by relentless bad news about multiple wars, the ugly tenor of elections at home and abroad, a border crisis, a bridge collapse, weather emergencies of biblical proportions, injustice, inequity and all manner of violent acts.

In such times, it is not surprising that people seek comfort by withdrawing into their own small world to seek relief in memories of happier times or by trying to find immediate but temporary gratification from a cocktail of distracting amusements.

A better but much harder course is to face our troubles head on with worthy long-term goals in mind. As Lincoln did. His three most famous speeches—“A House Divided” (1858, accepting the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois), the Gettysburg Address (1863), and his poignant prayer for reconciliation in his second inaugural address (1865)—all were delivered at a time no less dangerous than our present circumstances.

About 40 days before his assassination, Lincoln concluded his second oath taking ceremony with these words: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lawyers and law students would be well served to read and reread these three texts. They offer a master class in purposeful advocacy and inspiring lessons about the virtues of civic duty. Reflecting on these extraordinary eloquent powerful passages also demonstrates how dedicated lawyers, such as one of the greatest, Lincoln, and legal educators can and already are playing a key role to continue the unfinished symphony of America’s constitutional system of government.

Embracing this mission, the deans of more than 100 American law schools joined and published this letter:

“Lawyers play a critical role in sustaining our constitutional democracy. President John F. Kennedy remarked on the enduring commitment needed to maintain such a system of government: ‘Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to untiring effort … .’ We are thus grateful to the American Bar Association Task Force for American Democracy for its efforts to protect and preserve the rule of law and the ideals of our profession. As law deans, we affirm that training for the next generation of lawyers should include these important elements:

  • Teaching our students to uphold the highest standards of professionalism, which includes a duty to support our constitutional democracy and, per the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, to ‘further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.’

  • Offering courses, workshops and events that engage with the rule of law and democracy and sharing teaching resources through a new clearinghouse that the American Bar Association is creating.

  • Teaching our students to disagree respectfully and to engage across partisan and ideological divides.

  • Encouraging our students to support and defend the Constitution and the rule of law through clinical work, public education and advocacy.

Supporting public education and events focused on the rule of law and the values of our constitutional democracy.

We call upon all members of the legal profession to join us in the vital work ahead.”

After all, academic institutions are often called upon to work as field hospitals for wounded democracies. This was so in 1941 with three-quarters of the world in armed conflict. After receiving an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Rochester in upstate New York, where his mother was born, Winston Churchill declared: “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Churchill’s resolute brave commencement exhortation was delivered by transatlantic radio broadcast to the American audience from his beleaguered London. At one of democracy’s darkest moments, Churchill’s rousing commencement speech reminded the free world why working together with faith in ourselves, hope and in the service of others justifies optimism about overcoming the worst almost unimaginable adversities.

Once again, four score and three years later, we can resist our worst demons and follow humanity’s better angels. Given the contemporary blistering divisions and emotions driving us apart, lawyers will have to help reset public conversations about the contentious issues of our times.

Under the circumstances, the distinctive hallmark tools of our learned profession of courtesy, civility and cooperation can be put to good use to lead the way. It will not be easy, but it never is easy to turn the other cheek.

Fortunately, America’s law schools have recommitted themselves to send reinforcements to defend and strengthen democracy. As the best lawyers do, our new lawyers will be trained to solve tough problems.

Nicholas W. Allard is the founding Randall C. Berg Jr. dean of the Jacksonville University College of Law in Florida and previously was the president and dean of the Brooklyn Law School in New York. Allard has worked as the chair of the ABA Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress, as the chair of its Communications Committee, as a member of the ABA Government Relations Committee, and as a member of its Task Force on Lobbying Reform. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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