By Jordan PollApril 25, 2018
He is the founder of the National Registry of Exonerations and a scholar of the criminal justice system who has been a member of the Michigan Law faculty since 1987. But while delivering Michigan Law’s spring Blue Jeans Lecture, Professor Sam Gross focused on a feeling we’ve all had.
“I’ve experienced it in my career as a lawyer and as a law professor—that somebody is going to catch onto me, and realize that I am not what I pretend to be,” said Gross. “But what I want to leave you with today is best summarized in the words of Kurt Vonnegut: ‘We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be.’”
Success in law involves not only crafting but also projecting an optimal version of the truth, Gross explained to his student audience. “Even if you’re concerned about the validity of your argument, how you look, act, and speak in the courtroom should exude confidence and trustworthiness,” he advised the students. “And just as actors have to assume the role they are playing to be convincing, so do you with your argument. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
In many ways, said Gross, if you think about the ethical considerations of being a lawyer, the most important decisions aren’t what you do in a case, but whom you choose to work for. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work for a prosecutor who sticks it to defendants who can’t make bail. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work for an insurance company that is hard on giving settlements,” he said, referring to his own professional experiences. “If you have a choice of jobs, and you all will, you should know why you are doing things. And, usually, an important part of that is who writes your paycheck.”
Of all the lawyers Gross worked with in private practice, he said the ones he disliked the most were those who didn’t realize that winning isn’t everything—especially in divorce cases, where no one wins but the pain involved can depend on what the lawyers think they ought to be doing. “Winning is exciting. It’s a great feeling to be the reason the righteous succeed,” he said. “But enjoying winning has a downside that needs to be kept in check. Winning shouldn’t outweigh the needs of your clients.”
While seeking truth is an element of good lawyering, Gross emphasized the importance of recognizing what you are doing so that you don’t deceive yourself. “How you go about winning in the courtroom isn’t necessarily how you should behave with people on a normal basis,” he said. “Recognize that, to a degree, deception is expected and required of you—and don’t let it migrate to the rest of your life.”
Each semester, the Law School Student Senate selects a professor to give a Blue Jeans Lecture, an opportunity to offer life advice on practicing law and beyond. Gross taught his last class in December and will retire in May.
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