From Beirut to the American Halls of Justice

an immigrant and lawyer compares her old country and new in terms of working for justice


an immigrant and trial lawyer prepares for the trenches

"Every trial lawyer’s life experiences are different, of course, but no doubt interesting to explore. For me, I remember doing homework in the dark using only candlelight due to power outages in the war in Beirut. I remember not being able to buy my favorite cereal due to food shortages. Being in bomb shelters. Being a refugee in Syria. Loosing our home due to bombs and rebuilding it. Collecting bullet shells instead of bottle caps."

 

By Amal M. Smith

           When I took the bar exam to become a lawyer, it was three full days of testing. Back then, the mere thought of a three-day exam was grueling. And naturally, passing was a joyous celebration. But now, as a trial lawyer, I often fondly reminisce about that exam as a nostalgic achievement. Because when I am in trial everyday, all day, sometimes for weeks at a time, I would do anything to sit for a three-day exam instead.

             We call trial advocacy “being in the trenches” because it is a fast-paced high risk fight—an all out war where law and critical thinking are the weapons. To your right stands a human being whom you are duty-bound to defend, while all around you government actors are paid handsomely to convict him, and in front of you are a judge and jury who have taken oaths and vowed to be fair. Yet vows are often broken and the court enforcing these vow violations has a discouragingly high failure rate.

             The bar exam pales in comparison to the realities of trial advocacy. It does not prepare us even a smidgen for the life-altering experiences of the halls of justice. Rather, it is our life experiences and our upbringing that shape our ability to survive there.

             Every trial lawyer’s life experiences are different, of course, but no doubt interesting to explore. For me, I remember doing homework in the dark using only candlelight due to power outages in the war in Beirut. I remember not being able to buy my favorite cereal due to food shortages. Being in bomb shelters. Being a refugee in Syria. Loosing our home due to bombs and rebuilding it. Collecting bullet shells instead of bottle caps. Playing military checkpoint, instead of cops and robbers. Getting under my school desk during bomb drills and during actual war instead of practicing fire drills or earthquake drills at school. How can I forget hearing way too often an exchange of automatic gun fire or the time when my mother screamed for me to get on the floorboard of the car to avoid getting shot during a sudden skirmish on our drive home from my grandparents’ house. I would hear about raids of people’s homes, looting, and killings of civilians. I remember meeting French soldiers with the UN peacekeeping force who decided to build a fort under my grandparents’ building. In the midst of all this war, terror and chaos, I felt safe and loved anyway.

           I have a formidable family, a heart-warming culture, a merciful faith, and a rich heritage. War could never take that away from me. I recall that despite the war there and all our challenges, I objected to leaving my home country, family, and friends to immigrate to what was then a foreign country.

         But then, I remember my first day in America, loving it, and feeling challenged to reimagine what heaven must be like. At age 10, I wrote letters to George HW Bush (R.I.P.) about the perils of war and begged him to think of the children, only to get pictures of his horse and a standard letter in reply. We waged many wars after that and killed innumerable children and harmed millions more. Needless to say, George didn’t take my advice or care that I was begging for him to reconsider going to war. Or maybe he did, maybe that was part of why he ended the first Iraq war. But he certainly didn’t teach his son much about the perils of war. I regret not writing his son letters.

             But I remained hopeful because ours is a nation of laws not of men. In high school, I sat in my US government class in awe of our incredible system of government. There is nothing more powerful than our Constitution, the balance of power it creates, the checks and balances engraved in its pages, the contract it enshrines between the government and the people, so long as we remain a nation of laws not of men. Then I watched men pass the Patriot Act. It was then that I knew without a doubt that law was my calling. I needed to defend our Constitution, our bastion of peace and stability from the perils of terror and war.

             I learned early about the horror of war and violence and the selfishness of so many, only to learn later about the frailty of oaths and the fallacy of fairness, impartiality and justice. But I am also keenly aware of the power of law, hope, heart, and resilience, even on the days that I am beaten down and exhausted. I am forever grateful for my life experiences.

           When I call “Ready” for trial...I’m ready not just to try the case with zealous advocacy, but to give life to our Constitution, to bring heart, joy and optimism to the court room, to diffuse the tension, and to transform fear into hope and empathy. One human being at a time. One day at a time.

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