Berlin and Beyond: How an Immersive, Cross-Disciplinary Program Helped Me Better Understand My Goals for a Career in Law

During the Fall 2016 term, five students and one faculty member from the Colleges of Law participated in a cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary course examining global immigration through the lenses of law, psychology, human development, counseling, and health care. The course culminated in a 10-day immersive study abroad excursion in Berlin where students learned about the multifaceted response from Germany to the current refugee crisis. Student Sam Carter reflects on how the course shaped him personally and professionally.

On the first night of Hanukkah, after returning from Berlin, I sat around the table with my family to eat the historic foods, laugh, and watch the candles burn. I could not help but feel lucky. Upon returning, my primary emotions were relief and gratitude for the comfort of my own life and the freedoms we have in the U.S.

We live in interesting times. There is perhaps no better illustration than the current chaos in the Middle East and its peripheral effect on Europe. That effect was felt full force by our study abroad group when the 10-day trip to Berlin was sliced down the middle by a horrific terrorist attack at a prominent Berlin Christmas Market on Dec. 19, six days into our trip. 12 were killed, 48 injured.

The night of the attack, I had a nightmare that from our hotel you could see a raging fire and hear sirens. I woke to realize that I was a changed person from this experience, and perhaps would take a sliver of trauma home myself.

As a law student at the Colleges of Law, I had been about as far removed from the geopolitical turmoil of the refugee crisis in Europe as one could be. In retrospect, that made my experience there all the more impactful. Now that I have seen the experience of refugee life first-hand—unfiltered by media and free from the obfuscation of bias—and felt the shock and fear a terrorist attack can rain down on a city, I feel I can apply some valuable lessons to my own path forward as a human being and in the legal profession.

Here are four takeaways from my trip.

1. Being challenged personally and politically is beneficial no matter your field of study.

Still raw from the experience, I feel that the gravitational pull of hatred, demagoguery, and division is too strong to overcome with good intention alone. The reptilian brain always seems to trump (for lack of a better word) the mammalian brain when we are faced with adversity.

I wonder whether I am naïve, whether Western liberalism itself is naïve in the face of hostility. In one session during the trip, Stephen Richter of The Globalist railed against the “limousine liberals” who failed to make important connections during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While I took much of what Richter said with a lot of salt, I agreed that the American left needs to be rejuvenated by young, sincere people who are willing to get their hands dirty and reject the gala mentality possessed by the current movement.

Cynicism aside, beautiful moments in Berlin stand out as well. I will forever look back fondly on handing out Christmas presents to children, on making breakthroughs of trust and understanding with my PhotoVoice project partner from the refugee shelter, and on meeting such great people along the way.

There were also harrowing but enlightening moments, like standing in the freezing cold, imagining how prisoners must have suffered at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I found it especially touching that perhaps one of the most iconic statements to emerge from the Holocaust was penned by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant clergyman and Sachsenhausen survivor.

Upon his release he famously stated: “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
The trip was one of juxtaposition—the beauty of family, unity, and compassion pitted against the destructive power of politics, intolerance, and apathy.

2. Law needs to be a humanistic endeavor.

From a professional standpoint I think the trip was invaluable. The field of criminal law is a high stakes human drama that cannot be divorced from human emotion or psychology. This trip was somewhat of a crash course in many psychological practices that are applicable to my own professional goals. This is especially true in criminal defense, which often focuses on the intentionally cruel, unfair, or unethical practices employed by the state to coerce confessions or otherwise circumvent constitutional rights with dubious psychological practices.

There is an old saying that you can tell a lot about a society by how they treat their prisoners. When a prisoner loses his identity, his right to compassionate treatment, and his chance of integration in the future, it reflects a society that is willing to forfeit their own rights, a society that is overly confident in their own institutions and unable to place themselves in the shoes of the convicted, the condemned, or the ostracized. Just like at Sachsenhausen, where hundreds of thousands of prisoners were marched through the town center, inaction is often the path of least resistance.

Law is first and foremost a system by which people handle grievances and establish rules to limit harm done by other people. It is a humanistic endeavor and—like any human endeavor—it is imperfect. Indeed, the shortcomings of the legal field are laid bare by the failures to address problems of immigration, diplomatic relations, and international controversy. Given the contemporary political direction in our country, I am left thinking, “If I don’t do something, who will?”

This concept of individual action was reinforced on the Berlin trip. The fact that the TCS students came from all over the country of their own volition into a sincerely difficult situation created a shred of hope for American decency. Likewise, I was moved to see so many young Germans advocating for the “newcomers”, working for almost nothing to provide social services and care to refugees with nowhere else to go.

3. Compassion in the courtroom is not a weakness.

I cannot divorce compassion and altruism from personal action. My interest in criminal defense stems from compassion for the accused. The trip to Berlin was really a tour of the helpless, from the historically oppressed to the contemporary displaced. Here too is a shortcoming of the law in many cases—the treatment of the accused as a class to themselves, as if accusation was an indication of culpability.
This thinking helps only the powerful, which is why I am consistently perplexed by the average person’s questioning of my motives in criminal defense. “How could you do it?” or “Could you defend someone you knew was guilty?” These are all valid questions, but they are the wrong questions. If I don’t do it, then who will?

The tragic history of German complacency and their modern experiment in compassion shows what happens when people choose to do nothing. To expect the justice system to work flawlessly, like a well-oiled machine that always picks the right guy is an exercise in blind faith. That never sat well with me. In the law, we are taught to be advocates, to pursue a client’s goal but always be an authoritative voice.

The approach taken during this project was different, encouraging “compassionate presence” over any authoritative agenda. Naturally the goals of a psychologist and an attorney are often times very different, and a psychologist is just as likely to let their professional dogma influence their behavior towards a client as an attorney. Still, more often than not it seems that a healthy understanding of the basic principles of individual and group psychology would help, not hinder an attorney, especially in the field of criminal defense.

4. After Berlin, I won’t consider myself just a lawyer anymore.

The trip to Germany made it clear that the human experience is multidimensional and the law, as a humanistic practice, is itself—by necessity—multidimensional. The importance of psychological trauma cannot be understated in the American legal system, from the victims of sexual and domestic abuse, to the emerging defenses based on PTSD that have been used with increasing success for our nation’s growing class of traumatized young men and women.

I have a much better understanding of the importance of sincere advocacy for people who I could—under any other circumstance—simply ignore. Moreover, I have deeper sense of duty to my country and to the entire world to serve as the ambassador we so desperately need during these tumultuous years.