The Gift of Building on a Firm Foundation
This summer I was privileged to travel to Princeton, New Jersey to participate in the Witherspoon Institute’s summer seminar on the Moral Foundations of Law. For a week, a group of eighteen lawyers and law students from across the globe sat around a conference table in the basement of a private club and listened to personal lectures from some of the greatest jurisprudential thinkers of our time. Then we shuffled over to the pub to unpack what we had just heard and share our thoughts and experiences with each other. I can only describe the experience as a gift.
I have been reflecting on my whirlwind time at Witherspoon for a few weeks now, trying to articulate what it means to me. It was only this week, after the first class of my last year of law school that I understood: the seminar was the realization of the best aspects of law school packed into a week. In the classroom back at school, surrounded by seventy of my peers and with a tight schedule to stay on, there was no time to mull over the underlying reasons why the law is as it is. There was no opportunity to reflect on the philosophical assumptions that undergird our legal system (you might say, “moral foundations of law”). And there was no chance to pause and ponder. Witherspoon, with its small class size and ample time encouraged deeper thinking. Its format invited questions, and its conversational “rabbit holes” were not distractions, but the essence of what we were doing.
Feeling at Home
The model I have described is not a sustainable one, nor even one that is replicable on a large scale. Its beauty, however, lies in its unsustainability. It was a step out of the hectic, fact-focused advocacy that the practice of law can often become (and that my work in public defense this summer at times became), and an entrance into what St. Thomas has taught me that the study of law ought to be: a focused search for truth that integrated faith and reason. This congruence with St. Thomas’s mission enabled me to thrive in the environment Witherspoon offered, having already received an understanding of law as directed toward the common good. While seventy-person classes on hard skills are a necessary component of a well-rounded legal education, the ability to reflect on the deeper questions of what law is, is just as important and in fact forms the foundation on which those hard skills rely.
My experience at Witherspoon gave me a broad framework in which to place my legal knowledge and hard skills. It gave me a solid philosophical foundation on which to rest the assertion that law is and ought to be based on reason and directed toward human flourishing rather than the whim of the legislator. This built on what I learned at St. Thomas, and gave flesh to the arguments I knew to be true but could not yet defend. For me, Witherspoon supplemented and in some sense completed my St. Thomas education by giving me the big picture of what law is and what its purposes are.
As I enter the last year of law school, I have been thinking a lot about what type of law I want to practice and what type of lawyer I want to be. My experience at Witherspoon this summer helped me to see that the answers to these questions do not matter as much if I ask them with a proper understanding of law’s purpose and the role of my chosen profession in achieving the common good. The brilliance of the Witherspoon seminar is that in spite of the seemingly endless surface-level differences between its participants—ranging from home country to practice area—all of us walked away with a common understanding of law as a powerful positive force for human flourishing. Laws need not look the same in every place or time (determinatio), but all law must be directed toward the same fundamental ends. That perspective, I think, is one that St. Thomas imparted to me, and that Witherspoon hammered home this summer. Armed with so great an understanding, I can rest easy knowing that wherever I end up, I can use what I have learned to help others.