The Risks Inherent In Practising Law: Is It All Worth It?


It’s among the most ambitious and inspiring of responses to the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A lawyer.”

The appeal of fame, fortune and early retirement is incredibly tempting to many a young person, but how often do they properly consider the possible ramifications of such a career choice? Practicing law at the highest level is undeniably fraught with risk, and many an esteemed lawyer has met their death because of their career choice.

This week, esteemed Harvard law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr received death threats and calls for his resignation from the distinguished American University, simply for agreeing to act as criminal defense attorney for the disdained American producer Harvey Weinstein, who faces allegations of sexual abuse following complaints from at least six women. Despite having previously overturned hundreds of wrongful convictions and having garnered widespread praise for becoming the first African American in history to be appointed as Harvard University’s law faculty dean, his accomplishments to date have all but been forgotten in the wake of his decision to uphold the most basic premise of law: that even people accused of the very worst crimes deserve a robust defense.

He is not the first lawyer to suffer public humiliation and attacks for doing so.

There were the lawyers who defended the War on Terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay, who were dubbed “The Al Qaeda seven” and questioned in a New York post article about their underlying values – and whether or not they were shared with the enemy.

There was Michael Ratner, a civil liberties lawyer who represented WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as well as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Bosnian Serb leader convicted of genocide and war crimes charges by the United Nations Radovan Karadzic, and numerous prisoners being detained for terrorism-related charges, and who as a result was consistently branded a traitor and threatened by his fiercest critics.

And there was the condemnation of every lawyer to have ever represented a serial killer, despite knowing of their guilt. A member of Ted Bundy’s defense team once famously described him as “the very definition of heartless evil”, but continued to defend him nonetheless, earning him an equally horrific reputation.

The risks inherent in practicing law and defending controversial clients are sorely undervalued by those aspiring to craft a future in law – and we aren’t paying enough attention to the issue. At the other end of the scale, we have lawyers like Amal Clooney who will risk their very life to uphold values held to be true to them.

Speaking to US Magazine a few years ago, the high-profile human rights lawyer admitted her decision to take ISIS to court for genocide was understandably fraught with risk, but that she was prepared to take on those risks. After meeting ISIS survivor and activist Nadia Murad, who escaped captivity from the terrorist group after being tortured and raped for many months, Amal admitted she could not deny the girl justice.

She justified her representation of Nadia as the only means of addressing the inhumanity and brutality of the terrorist group.  “I think one of the ways to take action that way is to expose their brutality and corruption, and partly you can do that through trial,” Amal said.

Amal now faces threats and uncertainty over her safety as a result of her decision to defend the damaged young Iraqi girl, begging the question of whether lawyers are truly operating in among the most dangerous of fields. Wang Fu is another human rights lawyer who faces persecution in her own country for representing clients including members of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, and Ilham Tohti – a well-regarded ethnic Uyghur and critic of the Chinese government, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2009.

What is the safest means of practicing law in this day and age? Working as a family lawyer?  A law professor? Working as a military or estate law attorney? How can one work to defend justice without treading on the wrong toes? Is it even possible?

Even an environmental lawyer faces a high level of risk. In 2017, the Philippine lawyer who was renowned for investigating crimes against the environment was ambushed and shot dead in broad daylight. I repeat, in broad daylight. The death of Mia Manuelita Mascarinas-Green pushed the Philippines to the ranking of second most dangerous country in the world for environmental campaigners after Brazil.

Ten years ago, thousands of lawyers donning black suits and ties took to the streets of Pakistan to protest the suspension of the constitution. Over 600 were arrested as a result, but it once again demonstrated the absolute willpower and determination of those working in the field of law to uphold the most basic principles of law theory. That for modern society to continue to evolve and thrive it must uphold the very foundations of the legal institutions upon which it is founded. The law must come first – before all else.

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