The dignity of legal representation

18 Oct 20

In Lawyers as Upholders of Human Dignity, Georgetown Law Professor and legal ethics guru David Luban explains how advancing and maintaining human dignity is a fundamental cornerstone of our profession. Indeed, it is  “what makes the practice of law worthwhile.” Defining dignity as a “property of relationships between humans," Prof. Luban articulates how the right to legal representation in criminal cases neatly encapsulates the notion of the law as a defender of human dignity.

Prof. Luban starts with the premise that if human dignity is to mean anything at all, it must mean that every human has the right to have her story heard, particularly if the consequences at stake are moral condemnation, and loss of life or liberty. “A procedural system that simply gagged a litigant and refused to even consider her version of the case would be, in effect, treating her story as if it did not exist, and treating her point of view as if it were literally beneath contempt.”

If we accept the premise that human dignity requires a full and fair opportunity to be heard, the need for an effective advocate becomes obvious. People may be inarticulate, ignorant of the law or the process, or even unable to speak or write. Without effective advocacy, the voiceless and legally mute cannot be heard or even acknowledged, and thus their dignity is denied. “Human dignity does not depend on whether one is stupid or smooth. Hence the need for the advocate.”

But isn’t it true that a lawyer’s theory of the case may wildly diverge from reality? How is allowing advocates to “spin” a case upholding human dignity? Prof. Luban answers:

The law forces an artificial and stylized organization into the way stories have to be told; by trial time, any legally coherent telling of the client’s story will bear only scant resemblance to its raw version. And, precisely if the client is inarticulate, unreflective, or simply stupid, the lawyers’ version will be stronger, cleaner, and more nuanced than the client’s version. The lawyer will read between the lines, and perhaps imbue the story with more subtlety than the client ever could. It seems to me that this does not disqualify the story from being, in an important sense, the client’s story.

(Photo: Dignity Statue, South Dakota)