Basic Training

Here’s the first in a series of posts by our friend, Tom Cox (see last week’s post, Lessons Learned from The Front). 

Cox, Tom


In the first half of the movie Full Metal Jacket, one of director Stanley Kubrick’s several masterpieces, we witness the lives of Vietnam-era Army recruits during basic training. The ordeal produces pressures so intense as to drive one otherwise sympathetic and decent recruit to a deranged act of violence against his primary tormentor. Witnessing the process begins to generate in the viewer a revulsion at how this type of experience damaged or even destroyed in the budding soldiers some of the very traits that establish our humanity (compassion, empathy, and joy), all in the interest of turning these young men into soldiers. Yet in the second half of the movie, set entirely in Vietnam and including a battle during the 1968 Tet Offensive, we come to understand that, however brutal and inhumane the ordeal of basic training may have been, it was perhaps insufficiently de-humanizing to fully prepare those men for the horrors that awaited them in the field of battle. In any event, the most effective soldier was one who could dissociate himself from his humanity and perform the inherently inhumane task that soldiers must perform when at war.

To a lesser degree, but in some respects similarly, many lawyers (the writer included) perceived that much of our own “basic training” in law school sought to strip from us some of our more admirable human traits (as well as our individual values, including a desire for justice), all in the interest of teaching us to “think like a lawyer” — as opposed to whatever it was we thought like prior to law school. Whatever sense of personal values and judgment survived that three-year indoctrination period was then pounded further upon our introduction to the “real world” of law practice, with its constant focus on zealous representation and the attainment of financial gain. If, as I assume, many of us were initially drawn to the field of law because of a desire to contribute to the attainment of justice and the common good, the jolt delivered to our
sense of self by law school and the early years of legal practice left many of us feeling isolated, alienated, and depressed. When the anxieties arising from billed hours requirements, time deadlines, client demands and the adversarial nature of much of our work are added to the mix, is it any wonder that high rates of suicide and substance abuse have plagued our profession for decades?

I now recognize that my own soul was adrift for many years in the practice of law, so much so that I would not have even considered recommending that my own children, or any young person seeking my advice, pursue law as a career path. I believed that legal education itself (in its 1970s iteration) was a dehumanizing indoctrination process not so unlike the basic training displayed in FMJ, and that imparting our own values, humanity or personal ethical considerations into the way we practiced law would be improper, if not professionally unethical.

For various reasons (only a few of them attributable to conscious decisions of my own), my view about the profession and my role in it has become much more positive in recent years, and my level of personal satisfaction with the practice of law has increased dramatically. The reasons are myriad, but in part relate to my coming to understand and internalize certain things about myself, and about our profession, that should have been obvious to me and perhaps have been obvious to most of you. Paramount among those was the simple realization that nourishing my own soul and tending to my personal and spiritual fulfillment were essential to my well-being both as a person and as a practicing lawyer. Although I believe that the practice of law alone can rarely if ever provide all the soul nourishment we need, neither must our work starve or deprive us from receiving what we require. In the following series of posts, Mike and I will share some of the ways we have found, or have known others in our profession find, to live and thrive as “fully human” lawyers. So let’s start this discussion. And please send us your own stories and suggestions.

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