What does "making a difference" mean?

21 Jun 2017
Author: Robert Precht

In a recent New York Times opinion article “Lawyers Can’t Save America from From Trump,” law professor Paul Butler argues that lawyers are “not the best first responders” to the challenges presented by the new administration. Whether one agrees or disagrees, the piece raises a fundamental question. For lawyers who want to use their skills to improve society, what does making a difference mean? For me, making a difference means reducing suffering, and there are many ways lawyers can do that.

One of my most memorable cases as a public defender was one in which I could do very little to influence the outcome.  I once defended a young woman who had been manipulated by her boyfriend into committing credit card fraud. She was arrested and pleaded guilty. There was little I could do except help explain the crime and argue that the woman was in an abusive relationship that led her to the offense. The judge agreed to what’s called a deferred prosecution agreement -- if the defendant stays out of trouble the prosecution would  be dismissed. Afterwards she dropped by my office and delivered me a gift -- a small office diary. In it she wrote: “Thank you for caring.”


Lawyers tend to be a competitive bunch, and some want to make a definite mark on the world, say changing or repealing a law or winning a case that establishes a new legal principle. As I look back on my career as a public defender, I can’t point to any accomplishment in reforming the legal system. At best, I can point to a few cases where my presence and work made the ordeals my clients were facing less painful than if they faced them alone. Perhaps that’s not enough for some lawyers, but I still think there is value in that concept -- the lawyer as healer.

Some people would disagree that law is a tool for the relief of suffering. They argue that law is tool for regulating human behavior and punishing bad conduct with the approval of the state.  How can lawyers be healers in a similar way that doctors are?

Yet ours is a world ruled by laws, and people can feel pain both by becoming entangled in a legal process they know nothing about or by failing to use law to solve a problem. By extension, any time a lawyer helps a person understand and use the legal process, the lawyer is making a difference.  


I was reminded of this truth reading a New York Law Journal article describing a New York program enlisting retired lawyers to perform pro bono legal services. One of the participants, Linda Clarke, 58, “has answered ‘nonstop’ phone calls two afternoons a week from low-income workers with wage-and-hours, discrimination and other employment law issues.’ The article continues:

Clarke trained as a barrister in the United Kingdom and taught law before traveling to New York, where her husband had a teaching job at New York University. She passed the New York bar and signed up with the employment hotline of MFY Legal Services Inc.

A specialist in the field, Clarke handled calls in "every kind of employment issue." She gave legal advice where she could and referred some calls to other lawyers. In some cases, she had to suggest to callers that they didn't have a case and "should move along with their lives." She said they were "extremely appreciative" that someone had listened and left them with "some dignity."

Making a difference can take many forms. Maybe it’s handling a case that changes the legal landscape for many people, such as blocking a presidential immigration ban.  Maybe it’s winning the release of a wrongfully convicted person. These are instances where making a difference is relatively easy to measure. Yet for all these big cases, there are countless others in which lawyers can make a difference by reducing the anguish of persons confronting the legal process. These impacts are just as meaningful. Lawyers can help people gain back a measure of their humanity.