For The Record

Dear friends,

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that political polarization is more extreme than at any point in recent history. It is not that people strongly disagree about important social and policy issues. That has always been true. But we’ve seen politics become increasingly personal, with fewer people crossing party lines on the issues. 

As we as a society struggle with this problem of deep polarization, I see a clear role for both lawyers and law schools to play. Lawyers are, after all, in the dispute resolution business. Lawyers understand how to structure decision-making and dispute resolution processes. We understand the importance of the opportunity to be heard and that fundamental fairness matters.

Lawyers bring a skill set that is particularly valuable in a world of conflict. Whether trying cases or negotiating deals, the best lawyers are careful and attentive listeners who understand both the need for and the limits of analytic precision. They understand the importance of facts as well as the persuasive power of narrative.

As lawyers we are not only comfortable navigating a world of conflict and disagreement; we approach these challenges with a methodology built on recognizing the strength of the opposing views. Legal pedagogy — like good lawyering — emphasizes the importance of developing a deep, empathetic, and balanced understanding of the arguments of the other side. Our case books include dissents that force students to see that there were arguments to be made on the other side. It is commonplace in a law class for us to ask our students to construct the argument for an opposing position.

Our everyday life at Richmond Law bears witness to the value we place as a community on the ability to navigate disagreement with thoughtfulness and respect. You’ll see it in the daily interactions of our students, in our classroom environments, and in our programming. In our new Civil Discourse debate series — which you’ll read about in this issue — our own faculty take part in a structured and civil debate on a topical issue. The student audience votes not on whom they agree with, but who presents the best argument. And both sides join in a friendly discussion and reception to follow. This debate is one way we can model a productive way to disagree. 

This process of seeing that there is an opposing view — that there is something on the other side — is an essential first step in building connections and in building bridges. “Is there something over there that we should try to connect to?” That is what the bridge builder asks. And lawyers have been trained to look for what might be on the other side. Lawyers are not social workers, but they are, as the legal philospher Lon Fuller put it, architects of social structure. And in that role as architects, we can be enormously helpful to those building bridges.