Humility, humanity and the humanities

Speaking at a public lecture at MLS, US Defence attorney Dean Strang reflected on the importance of defending the ‘indefensible’.

US Defence attorney Dean Strang is well-known for representing Wisconsin man Steven Avery in the popular Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. He has been recognised by many as an exemplar of the legal profession for his fierce defence of the principles of justice and fairness.

But according to Strang, the act of defending those accused of murder raises a number of concerns from the community.

Speaking at the 2017 Peter Brett Memorial Lecture at MLS on Thursday 5 October, he meditated on a question he said is commonly directed at defence lawyers who defend the ‘indefensible’.

“The common question ‘how can you defend those people’, reveals a perception of the accused as ‘other’,” Strang said.

“It lays bare the widely shared assumption that ‘we’ do not commit the crimes – ‘they’ do.”

As Strang went on to point out, the differences separating those tangled up in the criminal justice system and the wider public are often socioeconomic. He said that defence lawyers serve an important public function in addressing this disadvantage.

“We defend not just one person, but a system of shared values. In defending one person, we defend all of humanity itself,” he said.

Strang tied ‘the question’ to broader implications for the law.

“The question forces us to consider both humanity more broadly… and the specific quality of humility that the truly humane possess.”

A notable theme of Strang’s lecture was the rejection of the conception of law as a social science. Strang instead urged an understanding of law that positioned it as a field within the humanities.

“The humanities are normative,” Strang said. “They ask not just what people do, but what we should do about it.”

“Whatever justice is, it is more qualitative than quantitative. It is more normative than empirical.”

In reconceptualising the law as a system of values, Strang directed his attention to the law students in the audience and urged them to draw on their empathy when dealing with people caught in the justice system.

“As those who study law, we must ask questions broader than those asked of us,” he said. “Skills matter hardly at all if lawyers do not see in full the problems their clients face.”

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