I suppose I will never stop reckoning years like a student. Some part of me still believes that the year begins right after summer vacation. Thus, today marks the beginning of another year. I returned to the office this morning after a month away. Just as when I was a student, the new year excites and terrifies. I always wondered then, as I do now, whether I would be able to meet the challenges ahead.
It's funny how little things change, even after the passage of so many years. But the fact is I spent more than a quarter of a century on the student's clock. I completed grade school, junior high school and high school in Chicago and Detroit. Then it was on to college, graduate school and then law school. Some part of me is still a student: the other night a new textbook arrived in the mail on the use of DNA evidence in litigation. I performed the by now ancient ritual that comes with the arrival of each new textbook: I looked at the table of contents, and then leafed through the book, looking at the illustrations, tables and charts. The thought that I might master this material excited me; the work it would take to get from my present state of ignorance to that distant goal intimidated me. I can do all that is required, I reminded myself; I just cannot do it all at once.
Life is a lot more challenging now than it was as a student. Then all I had to worry about was passing tests, a task that was easy enough in retrospect. Now the tasks are more complex. I represent people in conflicts that often define them for the rest of their lives. There is no textbook I can survey on the eve of a new year to see where the road ahead leads. The road ahead is open, even if experience suggests the sorts of destinations I can be expected to visit each year. This year will bring heartache, joy and fatigue. It will be a year like many others.
A few nights ago, I sat in something like dread and sorrow. I didn't know whether I could walk into the tornado of grief that comes of running a small practice devoted to criminal defense and civil rights. So few of the folks who come to see me bear glad tidings. Most are afraid, or angry. I am in my office on a Sunday morning with appointments scheduled, a familiar ritual. Strangers will come and tell me their woe; I will tell them what I think can be done for them. We will negotiate fees. Listening takes courage.
But after entertaining fear, an old and odd resilience returned. I could almost feel it seeping into me, just below the radar of what I can easily perceive. I know how to fight, and I am good at it. People come to me because I am, like all trial lawyers are, a prize fighter. The fights most of my clients are engaged in are not fights they chose; they ask me to fight for their liberty and for their dignity. I am flattered and stunned that someone would trust me with something so valuable. I may not have the larger truths of a priest to dispense, but I am entrusted nonetheless with something sacred: I am a criminal defense lawyer, the keeper of another's hope. From small sparks I am expected to fan great flames without becoming consumed in the conflagration: No wonder I face each new year with anxious trepidation.
But the new year has begun. It started about an hour ago. I am lucky to have had the past month to find peace, solace and joy in my wife and our dogs. They have given me much by way of internal strength. Comes now the time to share what strength I possess. Comes now another year of warfare, joy and sorrow. Comes now another in a seemingly endless series of years that I know will someday end. But not today. Today is for fighting.