Unraveling the “Citizen Lawyer” Concept

K KoballaBy Kasey Koballa, Class of 2018

On the first day of law school at William & Mary, Dean Douglas encouraged students to embrace the mentality of a “citizen lawyer”—a philosophy grounded in the history of William & Mary Law School. He described the “citizen lawyer” mindset at the opening convocation as the notion that lawyers should not only try to be excellent in the legal profession, but should also be strong citizens and leaders in the communities around us, while advocating for legal justice.  The portrayal of the concept continued throughout Law Week, as a first-year student, and into my second and third years.  However, the philosophy carried a mystique, seeming as a though it was merely a lofty concept that was unattainable.  I found myself asking “what is a citizen lawyer?” and “what can I do to make the decisions of a citizen lawyer?”  This concept became lucid after taking the Citizen Lawyers Seminar offered to second- and third-year students at William & Mary.

Alan Rudlin, an adjunct professor at William & Mary and Partner at Hunton & Williams, taught the course using the book Dereliction of Duty, by H. R. McMaster, the current National Security Advisor.  Professor Rudlin led the class through the book explaining the leadership lessons that can be garnered from the Vietnam War.  He focused not only on the outcome and statistics of the war, but also on the smaller decisions that were made on a daily basis and, more importantly, on the decision-making process.  We discussed how former President Lyndon Johnson made questionable decisions and did not listen to his Joint Chiefs of Staff, detailing the numerous tactical mistakes that led to the increased fatalities in Vietnam.  Professor Rudlin pulled out lessons from this history to explain how we, as students and future lawyers, can be “citizen lawyers” and make better decisions to better our nation—such as embracing ideals of those who challenge us, making sure to gather all details, and understanding how some statistics can be misleading.

Throughout the course, he brought in speakers including William & Mary’s President W. Taylor Reveley III and Justice John Charles Thomas of the Virginia Supreme Court. Each speaker would highlight on the mistakes that these leaders made during the Vietnam War while bringing in their own perspectives.  Justice John Charles Thomas’s speech hit home with the concept of the “citizen lawyer”.  He is the guest speaker at William & Mary Law School’s opening convocation, and he introduces the concept of the “citizen lawyer”.  His speech bound this concept and completed the full notice.  Not only do we, as students and lawyers, need to be successful and sound lawyers and understand the law but we need to see the bigger picture and be tactful, taking into account the perspectives of others.

To tie the concept back to Vietnam, our leaders needed to have a better understanding of what was going on in Vietnam, how the Vietnamese people were living, and what the Vietnamese people wanted, rather than focusing our political agenda on the next election, struggles at home, or an overarching goal of “gradual escalation” that was entirely miscalculated. William & Mary Law School charges it’s students with this challenge so that we can become better lawyers, help to better this nation, and prevent history from repeating itself.  After this course, I now have a complete understanding of the concept of a “citizen lawyer” and how to put that ideal into practice, to see the bigger picture and to promote justice for all, in my legal profession.