Law Day shines a light on the rule and role of law

Issue May 2003

In 1957, the American Bar Association first thought of creating a day to celebrate and call attention to the principles of justice and the practice of law. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day by proclamation and in 1961 a joint resolution of Congress established May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day in the United States.

While celebrations are nice, what does Law Day really mean to us, especially during a time of war in the Mideast?

For all of us, this day should provide an opportunity to reflect upon our legal heritage, the role of law in today's society and the legal institutions that form the cornerstones of our democracy.

Law Day is a day on which we should re-commit ourselves to the principles the legal profession stands for: equal justice, the rule of law, the supremacy of our Constitution, independence of the judiciary, trial by jury and protecting the rights of all citizens, regardless of their race, creed, color, gender or walk of life. These are only a few of the guiding lights lawyers promote, protect and preserve.

In one day, we can't teach all there is to know about preserving the rule of law and our democratic principles. More importantly, we need to realize that our education of the general public about the rule of law and the role of lawyers is a never-ending task. Law Day is only a reminder of this task, not the one and only day of the year we reach out and make a concerted effort to teach and instruct about the law.

When I speak to people, particularly students (it really doesn't matter their age, they all ask the same thing), there are always questions like, "Why would I want to be a lawyer?" and "What do you really do anyway?"

Law Day gives us a chance to explain just how important it is for the general public to understand our basic freedoms and how the law (and lawyers) protect these freedoms.

It's also important for us to remember that this is not a day for lawyers to celebrate lawyers. Law Day is not a day created for lawyers. It is a day for us to carry our message of the law and its societal importance to all citizens and, most importantly, to our next generation of leaders.

In a time when our civil liberties are being tested in a manner that, in some respects, threatens their very existence, we need to provide an explanation of those rights and liberties. We need to explain how and why our society must understand the concept of flexible rights that sometimes, whether we like it or not, must yield to the power of government. The tension between fundamental civil liberties and governmental prerogative often changes dramatically during times of strife, and that tension increases as our security and fundamental freedoms are threatened.

On Law Day alone this year, the Massachusetts Bar Association will have more than 70 schools participating in our program "Conversations on Law & Liberty in Times of Crisis," a truly remarkable number for a program that only began in September 2002. This is just one of many meaningful ways attorneys can get out into each of our communities and play an important role in the educational process that should continue every day.

Law Day also is a fitting bookend to a year that began in September with the MBA reaching out to educate students and citizens across the state, explaining who we are and what we stand for, as well as helping to explain the role of lawyers and the paramount importance of the rule of law in our society.

No one else can teach these concepts the way lawyers can, and it is our obligation to seize this opportunity in an effective way. So don't think of Law Day as a day of celebration about us. Think of Law Day as a chance for us to teach, educate and explain the role of law in today's society, and the role lawyers play in protecting our basic rights. It's what we are - and should be - all about as a profession.