Legal Owls, Legal Eagles, and Howard Eisenberg: Art History Mystery, Part 3?

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owlThis week, I wanted to respond to Jane Casper’s comment on Peter Heyne’s post Art History Mystery, Part 2.  Jane asks, “As long as you are looking into Law School art mysteries, perhaps someone can find out why the owl and bat figures are carved into the front of the arch over the Wisconsin Avenue entrance to Sensenbrenner Hall.” While I don’t know the exact reason for the bat and owl (leaving that to the true art historians!), her comment and the Dean’s recent post on the anniversary of Dean Eisenberg’s death, which was June 4, led me to the following reflective musings.

Howard Eisenberg was a legal “eagle” surely.  I believe he was so because he perhaps was also a legal owl.  All Harry Potter jokes aside, I find that owls and careful attorneys have a lot in common, not the least of which is that a plural grouping of owls is referred to as a “parliament.” 

I find owls interesting and unique.  Owls are widely adapted to a variety of habitats and environments, and are mostly nocturnal.  As such, they use skills and senses that other birds have not developed in the same way, such as the extraordinary ability to feel prey in the dark (through the use of “filoplumes,” tiny feathers on their beaks and legs) and through extremely acute hearing, which works in connection with dish-shaped faces that funnel sound to their ears.  Owls also have a range of motion in their necks that is greater than any other vertebrate species (270 degrees).  They are also birds of prey, and as such, have a coordinated sense of the timing with which to strike.  They are highly efficient and humane.  On the level of archetype and symbolism, the wise owl perched on Athena’s shoulder clearly denotes wisdom obtained by watching and listening.  Other symbolism points out the varied nature of different owl species as “messengers” from realms beyond.

Good attorneys (and strong leaders, including Dean Eisenberg) strive for continued  adaptation, seeing the unseen, hearing by way of true listening, navigating in the darkness, looking beyond the immediate (owls are purely far-sighted, and can hardly see anything closer than three inches from their eyes), and appreciating the importance of critical timing.  As messengers themselves due to their natural role as advocates, experienced lawyers seem very much like owls when they are given the awareness of need or the knowledge of justice to be executed.  The task varies with species perhaps.  Sometimes messages are meant to be shouted out in the interests of justice (screech owl); sometimes they are meant to be symbols for society (great horned owl); and sometimes they may not yet be ripe for the telling (barn owl, housing or storing knowledge.) 

When one thinks of owls, it is hard not to envision the silent sentinel form, perched and backlit by dawn or dusk, waiting in stillness for the right moment to move into right action. As Professor Hickey says in the Eisenberg 2002 memorial issue, “He had a keen desire to discover what the right thing was to do and to do it. He was well prepared, and he always followed up with a high-quality execution of whatever idea required implementation.”  It is also interesting how many of the essays in the memorial issue mention students or colleagues coming upon Dean Eisenberg in moments where he sat alone in his office or a desk, as if waiting for the need that he knew was about to present in the form of some human question or issue, small or large.  Owls, too, hunt prey as small as insects, or as large as snowshoe hares.  A lot of nocturnal hours were doubtless spent in service as well in the course of Dean Eisenberg’s devoted life.

Owls and good attorneys do require conservation in today’s world.  For law schools, this means evolving settings for proper education, which I leave in the abundantly capable hands of our current Dean.  As for the animal version, in her most recent work, animal ethnologist Temple Grandin suggests that the primary failure of law (and science research as well) in creating an ethically and biologically sustainable world for the other sentient creatures that inhabit our planet is appropriate grounding in substance. [1]  She bemoans the “abstractification” of laws on animal welfare, ecosystem management, and our world in general, citing the disasters that can come about from laws created without the proper basis in actual field observation and “hands on” practical knowledge.  I think she would have at least changed her mind a little bit about lawyers as a group if she had known Howard Eisenberg and the way he sought to serve justice, and also the way he paved the path to educating lawyers: do well and do good, as practically as you can.  Of owls and Eisenberg and the execution of legal mission, I think the key is in “practical magic.”  

Owls, and by extension all animals, teach us the lessons of grounding in the substantive.  As Professor Hickey notes on Dean Eisenberg again, “While he was aware of the ‘politics’ of issues, the core of his concern was with substance. His attention and talent were invariably focused on the substantive issue.”  Owls and all animals are probably spared the burden of abstract thought, for the most part.  They are endowed by their creator with the perfection of sensory awareness and pure being without question.  Howard Eisenberg practiced “grounded” law, and in doing so seems to me to embody the practical magic of all owl species in masterful simplicity. 

One last thought on Dean Kearney’s June 4 post, in which he says, “Yet, in some metaphysical but important sense, I do not believe [Howard Eisenberg] to be gone. His ‘ideals and [his] spirit,’ . . . continue to suffuse — indeed, guide — much of what Marquette University Law School does, even (or especially) with respect to initiatives that we have started since Howard’s death.”  The Malaysian peoples called the owl “burung hantu,” literally “ghost bird”;  this is compelling in that I think Dean Eisenberg’s presence is sensed very much at the current law school, especially on the third floor when looking at his portrait above the mantel.  Thinking on that portrait now, and the image of the owl above Sensenbrenner Hall’s entrance and the owl’s embodied nature, both practical and wise, I think of this quote the most:

“It is only with the heart that one can see clearly — what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince, 1943

I was fortunate to have had my life briefly intersect with Dean Eisenberg’s during my law school years, and am fortunate for the opportunity here to pay my own small tribute to him. 


[1] Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals Make us Human, Creating the Best Life for Animals, 2009.

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