So I read in the paper this morning that USM was going to stop offering French as a major. I was a French major (at Northwestern), so I got to thinking about what, if anything, helped in having that major in becoming a lawyer, and, more specifically, in appellate practice.
Two points struck me.
First, it doesn't have to be French, and you don't have to major in it, but I think it helps to know at least one other language to understand how to write in English. It was only through Latin that I saw how grammar worked. Learning other languages makes you understand how language is not the thing itself, but rather a tool used to express something about the thing. Understanding this distinction helps you become more precise, and appellate practice is all about writing clearly.
Second, because I was a French major, I trotted off to France for a year in college, which opened my eyes about how legal principles we take for granted are not universal, even in a place like France. Everyone was told to carry their identify cards at all times, for example, because the police could stop you at any time for no reason and ask for it. You learn also to appreciate the common law, versus the Code approach, and our Constitution as a living document, versus tossing a constitution out and starting over every few years.
Given this overseas experience, I was subsequently amenable to working on various USAID projects developing legal institutions in various countries, including many in Eastern Europe. When you meet people who have been shot at trying to get some rights and the rule of law, it gives you some perspective. This is a very healthy thing, I think, for lawyers – we raise our hands and swear as attorneys to uphold the Constitution. Knowing a little about what goes on elsewhere makes you understand why we do that.
I was in Romania working on drafting a law once with a MInistry of Justice official who spoke no English, so we worked in French. She looked out her window at a parade of protesters going down the main drag – they were protesting the law we were drafting. She sighed and said, "Ah, ma vie est comme une piece d'Ionesco." Because I majored in French, I was able to nod and agree, "sans aucun doute."