The System Does Work

A class at Barnard prompted Michelle Lappen to consider a career in the law. 
Now, she understands just how important the legal process can be.

By Michelle Lappen ’14

It was tense inside the Los Angeles Superior Courtroom of the Civil Division. A father in El Salvador, speaking over the phone with the help of a translator, claimed that his fifteen-year-old daughter had been wrongfully taken by her mother. The mother, present in the courtroom, also spoke with the aid of a translator. She told the family law judge that she had to remove her daughter to protect her safety because the father had hit their daughter with a belt. 

It was up to the judge to sort out who was telling the truth. As part of my externship with the supervising judge, I watched this drama and realized, more than anything else, the necessity of the courts. 

I also had a front-row seat when small claims and unlawful detainer judges—involved in eviction cases—struck a balance between empathy and firmness, while family law judges directed those without attorneys to the Self-Help Center. I witnessed victims of domestic violence seeking restraining orders treated with dignity and respect at the Domestic Violence Clinic. I saw members of the public embracing each other and shushing their babies as they waited on lines to sort out their guardianship status at the Guardianship Clinic. 

Most courtrooms are open to the public, though few people take advantage of the opportunity to observe our legal system in action. Even before I had security clearance, I asked to observe jury selection because I was a curious, incoming Columbia Law School student. A member of the court staff made sure I had a seat in the front of the courtroom, and the judges seemed genuinely interested that I was there to observe their cases. Watching courts in session, I imagined myself appearing as a lawyer myself one day.

I first began to think seriously about a legal career during my junior year at Barnard, when I took the course “The 14th Amendment and Its Uses.” For the first moot court assignment, I represented Mr. Munn in the 1877 case Munn v. Illinois, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of government to regulate private industry. I presented my argument to the professor and a retired judge, sitting at opposite ends of the table from each other.

I did not agree completely with the side I had to argue—that the state could not regulate private industries to some extent. But we had learned to work through opposing sides of a case rather than just choosing one side and defending it. We also had learned techniques in persuasive argument, and I knew to articulate my main point multiple times and to appeal to emotions. The course prompted me to think on my feet like a lawyer. 

My externship solidified my interest in the law, and there is one area I am particularly passionate about now—jury service. Juries I observed were representative of the diverse population of Los Angeles. I watched people connect and collaborate to uphold their community values regardless of differences in age, class, gender, national origin, or race. I saw people whose paths would otherwise probably never have crossed leave the courtroom for breaks animatedly socializing and asking about each other’s family and social lives. (They are not permitted to discuss the case they are deliberating). One judge told me that two jurors in one of his cases ended up marrying each other!

In 2017, with a president who called a member of the judiciary a “so-called judge” and with the legitimacy of our governmental institutions astonishingly under question, I am hopeful when I witness a cross-section of the community come together to uphold justice.

Latest IssueFall 2022