How objective is objective enough?

We have been discussing the notion of objectivity — what it means, its importance in law, its role in decision-making, and (especially) how we can perfect it in our own argumentation and writing — all throughout law school. This topic is never-ending. So it’s not far-fetched to say objectivity it is central to the legal profession and our education.
I was reminded of this after writing last month’s article, “When to speak up,” about getting political in law school. I received a lot of feedback, some of which emphasized the importance of objectivity in law.

Some people felt advocating strongly for a particular issue or making their politics publicly known would jeopardize how objective they were perceived to be by their peers and employers. Some said staying mum on particular topics enhances the impression of neutrality, which is essential to the role of a lawyer.

After all, employers, colleagues, and clients want to know they are going to get unbiased, honest work from you. They might ask what happens when a client who holds opposite views to yours shows up in your office and asks you to represent them? Would you turn away every client you disagreed with? How would your client feel if they knew you held opinions in stark contrast to their position and had publicly advocated against their interests in the past?

Another argument was made that law school is not only training lawyers, but future judges as well. To advocate for one particular side and voice opinions too loudly would hinder the development of potential decision-makers.

These are some of the counterpoints that could be made to my comment from last month, although given the breadth of the topic of objectivity, it certainly isn’t an exhaustive list.

Admittedly, these are great questions to ask as we ponder and plan our futures in this field. What does objectivity mean to our legal education and what role does it play in our futures?

Without launching into a philosophical essay, I want to try and answer some of these questions as I understand them. First, while objectivity is certainly a goal worth striving for and utterly important in the law, its absolute existence is open for debate. I think it should be noted that human beings are biased creatures — period. It would be very difficult for someone to be absolutely objective in any sphere, law school or otherwise. So is it better to pretend to be without opinion or try and identify where our biases lie?

Second is the difference between being objective and making objective arguments. In law school, we are learning how to see both sides of an issue, how to form concise arguments for each side, and how to do so using language that is concise and free of adornments, which focuses on the facts. From my point of view, at this stage we are learning a technique on how to form objective arguments rather than how to become objective ourselves.

Last month, I used an example of students making a public statement against a proposed bill. A vocal opponent may express opinions against it and that’s it. A law student, however, may consider why such a bill was proposed in the first place and formulate more nuanced arguments to address those points as well as their own in order to advocate for a side. The objectivity and strength of an argument stems from how you make it, rather than whether or not you make it.

Third, should speaking up rule out being respected and employable? To what extent does it hinder your ability to make objective arguments and act as a good lawyer?

Shortly after writing my last article, I attended a discussion panel on access to justice at the Pro Bono Students Canada annual national conference. A number of prominent legal figures were there, including Osgoode Hall Law School dean Lorne Sossin and Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and soon-to-be dean of the University of Ottawa’s common law section. That evening, we discussed a push for change in the legal profession to address this issue. All of the panellists had their own views on how to go about it, but everyone was advocating for a shift — they were speaking up.

I stopped for a moment and thought about how highly regarded these individuals are. They are at the top of the legal game so to speak and have garnered respect from all corners. And they were taking a stance.

I imagine their respect stems from their reputation as great lawyers and leaders, which would include the ability to see both sides of the coin and argue effectively. I also think much of the admiration is a result of the dedication they’ve shown to particular issues. That evening, it was clear that success in law (and respect from colleagues and clients alike) and having an opinion weren’t mutually exclusive.

This panel discussion stuck in my mind as an example of the kind of lawyer I’d like to be and the perfect illustration of the point I was trying to make last month. I don’t doubt the importance of objectivity or the role it should play in law; I hold it in high regard. I do wonder though, in this new environment I’m now a part of, how objective is objective enough?

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