Social Justice and the purpose-filled life

I have been reading Bill Quigley’s letter to a law student over and over.  It would make a great sermon about social justice and a purpose-filled life. Below is my shorter rewrite (1500 words from the original 8000 words):

Many come to law school because they want in some way to help the elderly, children, people with disabilities, undernourished people around the world, victims of genocide, or victims of racism, economic injustice, or religious persecution. Unfortunately, the experience of law school and the legal profession often dilute the commitment to social justice lawyering. In fact, research shows that two-thirds of the students who enter law school with these intentions do not end up employed in that work.

It pains me to say it, but justice is a counter-cultural value in our legal profession. Because of that, you must be different. You must swim upstream while others are on their way down. Unless you are serious about your direction, you will likely grow tired, float along, and end up downstream with the rest. We all grow tired at points and lose our direction. So we all need a purpose-filled life, and friends to help us along the way.

The traditional marks of success are not good indicators for social justice advocates. Certainly, you hope for yourself what you hope for others – a good family, a home, good schools, a healthy life and enough to pay off those damn loans. You can achievable all these and still pursue social justice, but they demand that you be more creative, flexible and patient than those for whom money is the main yardstick.

Our profession certainly pays lip service to justice, and because we are lawyers we often sound eloquent. But everyone knows that justice is not the essence of the legal profession. Money is. Most legal work facilitates the transfer of money from one group to another. Sometimes taking from the poor and giving to the rich, or justifying injustices levied upon the weak by the strong. The actual message that pervades the legal profession is that justice work, if done at all, is done in the margins, after the real work is done.

But you are just one in a long line of true justice-seekers. Learn from Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall, and many other lawyers whose names are synonymous with justice. There are thousands of others like them, mostly unknown to history, but great teachers and inspirations nevertheless. They are the passionate advocate for victims of domestic violence, the dedicated public defender, the volunteer counsel for those evicted, and the legal services lawyer working with farm workers or the aging. Seek out these mentors and understand the challenges they have overcome.
There is far too little about justice in law school. You will have to learn this on your own.

What is social justice? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it best (April 4, 1967):

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.

Dr. King’s message is not for the faint of heart. You must BE WILLING TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE, because questioning our laws will make other people uncomfortable. Many of them are perfectly satisfied with the way things are right now. For them, our nation is the best of all possible nations, and our laws are the best of all possible laws. Pointing out contradictions breeds doubt, and where that materialism of which Dr. King speaks reigns supreme, discomfort is the opposite of a well-lived life. Happiness is found in comfort for those floating along in life, more so than in justice for others, [which is seldom clean or complete.]

Be prepared to be misunderstood and criticized. Your convictions might make others uncomfortable, because others would rather not piece together a tapestry of American justice full of holes and contradictions. But if you are willing to be uncomfortable and you invest in working to change the world, you will find it extremely rewarding.

We must NEVER CONFUSE LAW AND JUSTICE. What is legal is often not just. And what is just is often not at all legal.

Consider what was perfectly legal 100 years ago: children as young as six were employed in dangerous industries. Women and African Americans could not vote. Any business could discriminate for any reason. Bosses paid workers whatever they wanted. Industrialists used police to beat up strikers and evict families. One hundred years ago, lawyers and judges and legislators worked in a very professional manner enforcing laws that we know now were terribly unjust.

So why do injustices persist?


If you are interested in real social justice, begin by seeking out those voices not heard in marbled courtrooms or in the halls of government. Listen to people rarely heard, and you will understand exactly where injustice flourishes.
Focus on who is suffering and why. It is not in the statute, nor the legislative history, nor the appellate decision.

Second, ask yourself who benefits? Why do you think that the minimum wage stays stagnant for long periods of time while expenditures on medical assistance soar year
after year?

Third, ask yourself: if the rich own so much, why do laws assist the poor, the elderly, or the disabled at all? Why are they structured in the way they are? Learning this history will help you understand how change comes about. Social security, for example, is now a huge statutory entitlement program that is subject to a lot of current debate and proposals for reform.

But for dozens of decades after this country was founded, there was no national social security at all for older people who could not work. As you look into how social secur-
ity came into being, who fought for it, how people fought to create it and the number of years it took to pass the law, you will discover some of the stepping stones for change.

There is a strong tendency for outsiders to anoint one or more people as THE leaders of every social justice struggle. Unfortunately, that suggests that social change occurs only when these one-in-a-million leaders happen to be in the right place at the right time. That is false history.

The truth is that you are one of those people. The only thing stopping you from the realization that tomorrow is the day you reverse direction and start swimming against the current is that you just haven’t found the right inspiration, life-defining purpose, and group of lifelong friends to support on the journey yet.

I hope you will be able to inspire me on mine.

Download full PDF of Bill Quigley letter to a law student interested in social justice:


4 thoughts on “Social Justice and the purpose-filled life

  1. Would invite you to read my own comments on the fundamental idea of Social Justice. I’m no student of law so you may not find it interesting. Just thought I’d say hi. Enjoyed it,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s