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Some days the best I could do was rush. Interstate 40, the highway that runs east to west through North Carolina, became a second home during the afternoons that I left Civil Procedure and made my way to the state capital for Democratic Party meetings. Balancing the workload of a law student with the demands of public service is not an easy task; it is, however, one that far too few attempt.
Deciding to go to law school was a step in a journey that began years before. During college I directed Heller Service Corps, one of the nation’s largest collegiate service organizations. While working with local service partners, I saw the great impact made by attorneys in shaping civic culture.
Later, when working for Congressman Mike McIntyre (D-NC), himself an attorney, I saw firsthand the value of legally trained elected officials. Just this week, I found myself as one of only three members of my party’s executive council with a legal education, a significant challenge as I lead the party through an endorsement for a vacant NC Court of Appeals seat. Each of these instances gave light to the reality that our public sphere needs lawyers, even those just finishing school, to provide a particular and critical lens on the challenges at hand.
When I chose to stay in North Carolina for graduate school, studying both religion and law, I chose to open the opportunity to dive into North Carolina politics. My presence in my home state allowed me to make a regular drive to my coastal home of Wilmington and to maintain ties with my local Democratic Party and a number of other community organizations. While my regular commutes were no match for Senator Cory Booker’s storied drives between Newark and New Haven or your own Barney Frank’s 3L year spent racing to votes on Beacon Street, my story does lend value to the idea that your years in law school do not have to be a time away, but rather a vital time to accelerate your service to your home or your adopted community.
In 2013, I had the opportunity to give the university commencement address at Duke, my alma mater. In the speech, I urged the graduates to discern their vocations by learning to pause. While at Harvard, each of you is surrounded by places where you may escape the classroom and find space to pause within the busyness of life in Cambridge. While a native North Carolinian, I have long been fond of my Massachusetts ties. With family throughout the Commonwealth, I have grown up with a first hand look at the many communities where you might service.
I am fond of Dean Minow’s reflection on legal education that you are learning to be “counsel for the situation,” a phrase coined by Louis Brandies ‘1877 to indicate the lawyer’s task of becoming an expert quickly in whatever it takes to solve a problem. This year I spent several months fighting the General Assembly to protect film incentives that serve a vital industry in my state. The loss of the incentives would lead to the loss of over 4,000 jobs for my community. Fighting for the film industry is one example of being counsel for the situation.
While some would argue that going to law school should first produce practicing lawyers, my story makes clear that the study of law continues to be a place where leaders can go to sharpen their craft and begin a life in the public square, to become counsel for the situation.
As I began considering my first bid for public office this year, I found that the reasoned rhetoric of the law provides a more careful platform for public speech. In 2008, Barack Obama ’91 was asked why he would not wait to jump into the national political scene. His answer was that there is something to be said about “the fierce urgency of now,” channeling the late Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a day where legislators often eschew the value of higher education, it is more important now than ever to enter the public square with a trust of deliberative discourse. The future of our states and neighborhoods depends on prepared and educated leadership.
As I fight for a better North Carolina, I hope you will join me in invigorating our nation’s leadership pipeline as lawyers, and more importantly, as those who love the law.
Andrew Barnhill is the youngest elected member of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s executive council and a fifth generation North Carolinian. He is a 2008 recipient of the U.S. President’s Voluntary Service Medal. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @ATBarnhill or like him on Facebook at BarnhillNC.
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