Rules of Engagement

Afghanistan was hot. An almost indescribable amount of heat meant that you were constantly sweating as everything you wore became soaked, so that you were never truly dry. I was there in 2014 as part of, what we thought at the time, was the U.S.’s withdrawal from the country. The unit I was a part of had the impossible task of maintaining the operation of Camp Bastion’s flight line, providing all the logistics that kept the aircraft and crews happy, while also keeping them safe.

Contrary to public assumption, and most recruiting commercials, the U.S. Marine Corps isn’t made of just infantry and aircraft units. There is a whole ecosystem of support jobs which keep everything moving along. My job was one of the less glamorous, less flashy, less likely to be publicized ones. I maintained air conditioners and refrigerators. And the unit I was assigned to wasn’t all that exciting either. We were a support squadron of the aircraft squadrons. We did not have any aircraft to maintain. Rather, we were supplied all the less glamourous logistics for the units that did fly.

Part of that logistic support was security. After the disastrous 2012 attack which killed two Marines and destroyed millions of dollars of aircraft, the airfield, which was nested inside the larger base, was subject to increased security protocols, limiting access to only those who had business there. This meant that in addition to doing our daily jobs, like vehicle and heavy equipment maintenance, we would also be tasked to stand post at the entry points for the flight line or be on stand-by as a quick reaction force in the event that someone breached the base fence and made the one-kilometer trek to the flight line.

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Mental Health and Law School

I have never been particularly excited to begin a new year of school. My mom, to my chagrin, keeps a photo of one of my first days of school on the family fridge. Clad in a breathtakingly dated wind-breaker, with a full sized Marquette University Law Schoolbackpack dwarfing my elementary school frame I lean against a tree at the bus stop. Flanked by my too-young for school sister who smiles from ear to ear my mom snapped the photo. I think that photo was both for me and my mom. I got a visual reminder that my family was always going to be there for me; my mom got a picture she could use to embarrass me with, and a memento of her favorite and only son.

I was reminded of this photo as email after email bombarded my inbox explaining the new COVID procedures for the in-class semester. Any excitement for my final year in school was dampened considerably. The Law School’s Instagram post which showed what the law school looks like now, a labyrinth of blue painter’s tape and signage, showed just how much the precautionary measures had sapped the building of its warmth. The Law School is, to be frank, depressing in its current arrangement.

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Story-telling and the Law

Tens-of-thousands of years ago human beings would gather near fires to keep the nightly darkness and danger at bay. Under the faint light of long-gone constellations, they would share stories. Stories of long-ago hunts and happenings that could no longer be remembered by any living soul. Dramatic stories of the beginning of the world, of gods big and small and the conflict between them all. Some of these stories were told with cave paintings, a smear of ash and suddenly a herd of elk would materialize on a cave wall.

Story-telling is fundamental to being human. As a collective species we surround ourselves in them and use them to relate to one another. The stories we tell can be light-hearted and full of levity. They might be tragic and heart wrenching. Usually, they are some sort of combination. Whether we realize or not we tell and retell stories every day. We relate the stories of our day to our significant others and friends after a day of work. We bond with our friends over stories of past exploits. Spend ten minutes with any child and you will be inundated with stories.

We use stories to make the complex simple and to craft narratives and mythos of the everyday. We judge the entertainment we consume based on how the stories contained within make us feel and award little golden statutes to those stories we deem best. The overwhelming majority of us will never receive a statute for the story of our own lives, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

From the criminal defendant to the corporation, there is always a story to tell. Which makes the legal profession’s aversion to stories and story telling all the more puzzling. The legal profession prides itself on brevity and regrettably this can sometimes lead to squeezing the humanity out of their story. A human being reduced to a mere two-dimensional caricature is a disservice to everyone. It reduces the humanity of the client and it embitters the attorney to see every client as a transaction, rather than someone who needs help with the complicated legal system. Much like an off-brand powdered juice mix the de-humanized, non-story recitation of a client’s issue can leave one wanting something more substantial.

It is easy to see why this happens. Attorneys at some firms live their lives 15 minutes at a time, constantly aware of the amount of time they spend on a given task. With limited space in written briefs and limited time in front of a judge to make their arguments it is tempting to jettison the human story that brought the suit in the first place. The U.S. Supreme Court for instance imposes a word limit of 9,000 words for Petitions for Writs of Certiorari and generally limits oral argument to an hour total on issues that affect the entire nation.

But despite the limitations placed on how an attorney has to advocate, we shouldn’t forget to tap into the human instinct. I didn’t realize the power inherent in stories until the spring semester of my second year of law school. Up to that point I had dogmatically followed the CREAC, (conclusion, rule, explanation, application, and conclusion) format and could never figure out why my legal writing was never as compelling as my peers. The answer was quite simple. I wasn’t writing a story for the fictional client, I was writing an instruction manual. There was no passion, no emotion, and as a result my writing suffered. I am glad to have learned that lesson. I had forgotten that everyone looks to the faint glow of constellations at night; that we seek out stories to help us understand the world.

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