Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Infamous Case of John Yoo, the Perfect Lawyer

Over the years, I’ve become intrigued by the lawyer. Among all my friends who have gone to law school, I’d say seventy per cent of them either didn’t finish, or did and chose not to become lawyers. For some, it was a matter of the workload, and the very long hours poring over legalese for hire. For others, they would be restricted from doing what they wanted to do with their lives, forced into taking positions that they might not want to take. This is what fascinates me most about lawyers.

Last month, I watched Jon Stewart interview John Yoo on The Daily Show, expecting to see him catch Yoo in some moment of hypocrisy, to display him in the infamy he deserved. This would have been a Jim Cramer moment for a genuinely influential figure in the Bush Administration. Yet Yoo never became ideological - he didn’t seem to have an ideology for Stewart’s questions to describe. Thinking on this and reading some of the analyses periodically over the following weeks, I realized that it was because John Yoo actually had no ideology. He had no beliefs.

What was he doing working in the Bush Administration? He was hired for the job. Why would he author a memo of legal advice that gave the Bush Administration the space to make a mockery of the Geneva Conventions, commit acts that American people generally consider morally reprehensible? Because it was part of his job to do so. Yoo’s bosses asked him if he could write a legal document giving them grounds to carry out particular acts. He acted according to the wishes of his client, finding the grey areas in the relevant legal documents to make their explanations.

This is what fascinates me about lawyers. The ideal lawyer is one who always acts in the best interest of their client, who becomes a tool of the client. The ideal lawyer empties their own personality and belief system, moral and political, and takes on that of their client. The wishes of the client become their wishes. This is why I think a lot of my more politically active friends left the legal profession, because they would have found themselves in this bind. In an economic climate where a young lawyer needs to take the jobs they can get, there is no guarantee that someone at the start of their career will work at a firm or represent clients who share at least some significant part of their belief system. If you’re not comfortable with that, then you won’t be comfortable being a working lawyer.

These kinds of empty personalities are what I find fascinating, the people who completely subsume themselves, who make themselves a figure for the action of others, an implement. I had an idea for a novel a while ago about a lawyer. I might have written about it here, but I don’t feel like going through my archives to check. The central character would be a lawyer who was completely indifferent to the actual guilt or innocence of his client, who cared only that his case was successful. I first thought of him as being a totally amoral egomaniac, someone for whom victory in a case is the paramount good, a validation of himself as a person.

But that’s not actually how these personalities work. The lawyer who cares only for the concerns of the client is more a mechanism than an ego. If he had an ego, it would only get in the way of his client’s own ideologies. This lawyer would have to be completely neutral, in every sense of the term. It’s a character I find scarier than the egomaniac centred on victory at all costs. The egomaniac’s victories would always be for him, achievements against sometimes impossible odds. He would be a supervillain with an amazing zest and vitality. The neutral would be a pure mechanism, the absolute servant. I wonder what kind of story could be centred around a person with no desires of his own, who exists only as a cipher.

Maybe I need to read some Phillip K Dick before I write this one.

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