Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Justice is Visually Stunning

By ned * Other ned Posts

12 Angry Men reminds us that classic motion pictures are thus for simple reasons. This black and white movie’s drama creates tension through the deliberation over a high-stakes criminal trial in a single room. The clash and metamorphosis of differing opinions demonstrates that change is possible and garnered a Best Picture nomination – losing to the stellar The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Aside from the deliberation room, the only other setting in the movie is the entrance of a famous New York City municipal center.


Unlike the simplicity of 12 Angry Men, the New York State Supreme Court building at 60 Centre Street in New York City grandly casts a shadow on Foley Square below. The elevated portico harkens to the past with a Greek temple fa├žade that masks more modern art deco masterpieces inside. In the latter style, the internal rotunda is painted with scenes from courtrooms of different Western cultures that our judicial tradition is built upon. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve on jury duty in this same building. The friezes in our waiting room highlighted a heroic vision of New York City’s majesty with a degree of handmade detail that modern buildings lack.

The building is fitting for our conception of the legal profession. The formal stylings match the suits and selected diction of the lawyers and clerks inside. Its gold embossed print and marble also suggested another side to the legal profession hyped in populous discourse – its money. The main street hatred of Wall Street spills over to the “fat cat lawyer.” Moreover, with people flocking to Ikea and Wal-Mart, the modern day consumer desires value as much as prestige. Perhaps the legal profession needs retooling for the post-Great Recession age.

A few models are emerging for a different type of law firm – or Law 2.0 as some call it. A few miles from the courthouse one New York law firm is an example of a growing trend. The firm Axiom is searching to find a model that minimizes costs and maximizes value to its clients. The Axiom plan revolves around lawyers based from home or at the client site instead of a law office with varying engagements and pricing structures. All of this work is to diminish overhead costs and the bottom line for the customer. Entrepreneurial ventures like this seems more fit in simple modern buildings such as Google’s headquarters.

But, I hope that our legal architecture remains rooted in the past. Places like the New York Supreme Courthouse in New York City evoke grandeur and formality. Our legal system is a peculiar institution. Built by mortals and tradition, it is often called imperfect. But, with decentralized power and faith in everyday citizens through juries, its structure strives to engage all instead of few in the power of a state. Distributing power that often corrupts the weak and strong alike. Those are high ideals that require a cathedral and not a campus.

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