My First Brush With The Law

I obviously got beyond my reticence about being a lawyer.  My biggest hurdle in the end was my concern about the corrupting effect of power and money.  Lawyers are professionals and are (almost always) members of the middle to upper classes.  They move in circles of which I had never been a part.   Within those circles come temptations that I had never faced.

I was committed not only to serving the poor but to living simply.  Even with these priorities going into law school, I was well aware of the many intervening events that could change me and change my priorities by the time I came out on the other end. Did the risks outweigh the potential benefits?

Two things helped me make the decision.  First, I read as many stories as I could about the lawyers behind significant social change in the United States, such as the civil rights laws of the 1960s and the abortion rights cases of the 1970s. These lawyers were worthy of admiration. I could only dream of being able to follow in their footsteps.

Second, I received in the mail a notice of jury duty.  I would be able to see, for the first time, the justice system at work.

It was the summer of 1987.  At that time in Louisville, Ky.,  potential jurors were required to be at the courthouse for one week, or until chosen for a jury.  Each day, I reported to the courthouse and sat in a large windowless room with an odd mixture of randomly selected people.  There were no laptop computers, cell phones or PDAs.  The only entertainment available was from a T.V. high on the wall, and it was tuned to the Iran-Contra Hearings.  Watching Oliver North testify was now part of my civic duty.

Every few hours, a clerk would come in the room and call out names.  For three days, I waited for my name to be called.  Dozens of others were called and disappeared never to be seen again.  I stuck it out with Ollie.

Finally, on day four, the clerk called out “Cindy Adcock.”  I was thrilled.  Finally, I would see some action.  The next step was voir dire, the process through which the attorneys for both sides select jurors.  I was selected to hear a receipt of stolen goods case.  The defendant had been selling stolen tennis shoes out of the back of his truck on the city sidewalk.  The case came down to whether the defendant knew the shoes were stolen.

At the time, I had not seen the movie Twelve Angry Men, but I can now report that our jury deliberations were very similar.  Most jurors thought the case was a slam dunk: he had to know they were stolen.  But I wasn’t so sure:  isn’t it just a stereotype to say that a black man selling goods on the street must have known the goods were stolen?  I had reasonable doubt.  A few joined my position.  The twelve of us went back and forth.  It was clear we could not agree.  We summoned the bailiff and sent word to the judge.

The judge called us out into the courtroom.  “This is not a hard case, folks” he said, trying not to yell.  We were instructed to go back to the jury room and work it out.   We didn’t work it out, and the trial was officially hung.

My four days at the courthouse were instructive.  The hustle and bustle of the courthouse was interesting.  I found power in the jury system.  And I decided that I could do as good of a job as the lawyers I observed.  Neither resembled Perry Mason nor the lawyers on L.A. Law.

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No, not me

The more I worked with the poor, the more I ran into the law.  I didn’t know how the legal system worked. I had never been in a courtroom or event met a lawyer. Thus, I didn’t know how to advise battered and abused women or the homeless people that attended my church how to get the help they needed when “the law” seemed to be an obstacle. And looking at the bigger picture, I wasn’t sure which law reforms to support in order to bring justice to those most in need.  My ignorance was frustrating.

“What about going to law school?” my husband suggested. No way!  First of all, law school is too hard; I could never pass a bar exam.  More fundamentally, being a lawyer was against my religion.  Seriously, lawyers are unscrupulous.  As zealous advocates, they have to lie and be willing to hurt others.  I had seen those movies in which a lawyer tears apart a rape victim on the stand, dragging up her past, making her the villain.  That was not me.  I was too gentle, too kind, too shy.

I was never one to speak up in class.  Standing in front of people made every part of my being tremble. My mouth would become as dry as a desert. A friend of mine invited me to “preach” at his church one Sunday morning.  He convinced me that his small congregation needed to hear a woman preach.  “Only by seeing a woman in the pulpit will they begin to realize that gender does not matter,” he argued.  They needed to know that God can speak through anyone, and I could help break through the prejudices standing in the way.

I agreed to do it.  After all, it would be good for me too.  One bible story gave me reassurance:  When Moses believed that God was calling him to be his mouthpiece to the Israelites, he replied, “But my Lord, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence, either before or since you have spoken to your servant. I am a slow speaker and not able to speak well” (Exodus 4:10).  But God’s call was relentless and, I told myself, “Look at the good that Moses did!”

God may be able to speak through anyone, but I am not sure her message got through the day I preached to a small congregation in rural Kentucky.  I didn’t keep a copy of the sermon, but I recollect that it had to do with something about the feminine side of God.  I still feel embarrassed for those people in the congregation, who were extremely gracious.  How they must have suffered through that sermon.  I certainly did.

So, no, I could never be a lawyer.

Changing the Fundamentals

I was only 17 years old when I left home for college. I was not well-traveled, well-read or well-coiffed, but I did have determination, strength of character, and an open heart and mind. Well, my mind was at least partially open. Having an open mind was not something encouraged by my family or my church.

I was a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. Prior to Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, fundamentalists were suspicious of Southern Baptists.  Based on my experience, they had good reason to be suspicious, for my values and thinking were challenged head-on at Carson-Newman, a Southern Baptist College.

My professors, and at least some of my classmates, challenged my black and white worldview, pushing me to think more critically about how Christian values play out in the world.  I was introduced to men and women of incredible faith who had sacrificed everything to empower others.   I began to see the civil rights and the women’s movements in a new light, bringing into focus the cruel injustices that inspired a generation of activists, as well as the now unacceptable prejudices of my home community. I embraced feminism and, ironically to some, discovered the feminine face of God.

In addition, I discovered explanations for the inexplicable, most notably in the area of psychology.  I learned how the experiences in our childhood shape our personality and our worldview; how the brain is a mysterious machine that can tragically malfunction; and how social groups shape beliefs and actions.   And while such discoveries have led some to question the very existence of God, I found reassurance in the recognition of the equalizing effect of the frailty of the human condition.

By the time I left Carson-Newman, my sense of calling had been refined. I would not just serve others, but I would serve the poor, the dispossessed, the “least of these” — whoever they are.