Eric Sievers. Photograph taken by Sarah Misell
Eric Sievers graduated from Appalachian State University as a psychology and philosophy double major in 2009, and is an alumnus of Elon University School of Law. Currently, he is an attorney at the Domestic Violence Action Center, a non-profit in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Pre-Law School Days
- What was your life like before you went to law school?
As an undergrad, I double-majored in philosophy and psychology while working at North Carolina’s oldest privately owned airport as a parachute packer for a small commercial skydiving outfit. So for a few years, my life was an orbit of philosophy, psychology and skydiving.
After graduation, I was torn between pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy and going to law school. I took some time to live and work and sort it out. I packed a lot of parachutes. I spent some time living with friends in Maui. I acted in a play, broke an arm in motorcycle crash, played a lot of music, traveled a bit, and lost my best friend to an overdose. Eventually I decided to study law first and then philosophy and see how I could weave them together.
- What did “being a lawyer” mean to you then? How did you come to this understanding?
Whenever I brought up the idea of law school, people always responded that they needed an attorney for one thing or another. So I saw that it meant something to other people. To me it meant I could potentially unravel those people’s legal problems for them.
I was reluctant to practice law though because I noticed that purely legal remedies to most problems were deficient. While they address very important parts of a client’s situation, they are impotent to solve other important aspects of that individual’s troubles. The legal problem is solved; the person remained incomplete.
There was also a celebration of sophistry attached to practicing law that turned me off. I care deeply about the reasons why we believe things, the extent to which those things may be true, and what that might mean. The adversarial approach to truthfulness which law embodies struck me as an appeal to shiny rhetoric rather than a mutually agreed upon pursuit of fact. That poses some serious epistemological concerns.
- What drew you to become a lawyer?
I realized that some lawyers and organizations aimed to solve all sides of a problem, not merely the legal aspects of it. For example, the non-profit I currently work for, The Domestic Violence Action Center, pairs domestic violence survivors with both a lawyer and an advocate, who typically has an M.A. in social work. Also everyone on staff is trained in domestic violence, trauma informed care, and other topics relevant to tackling the issues we face.
I was excited at the idea of working with a team that recognizes the scope of a systemic and multifaceted concern and addresses it as such, not as a purely legal one. Accepting the idea of practicing law came after graduation, not before.
The Law School Days
- What was studying law like for you? Was it what you imagined it to be?
There were aspects of studying law that I really enjoyed, but I was surprised by the pedagogical approach taken by many law schools. I certainly cherished the luxury of justifying the many hours I would spend each day reading at coffee houses. I was a bit taken back, however, by the adherence to the traditional style of teaching law that I often encountered. It seemed to fly in the face of everything the last couple decades of cognitive science tells us about the way people learn. It also was closed to learning much from the students.
Law schools pride themselves on drafting students from a diverse range of backgrounds. The breadth of these student’s backgrounds give them novel insight into legal problems and court rationale. Expecting a line of Socratic questioning to go the same way each time with each student of each class for a particular court opinion ignores the value of the diversity that the same school proudly touts in its recruitment stats.
The Socratic Method has a lot of utility in teaching a certain style of thinking and speaking, but we have to remember that even the best law professor is not the fictionalized portrayal of Socrates from Plato’s dialogues. Just as no detective delivers Sherlock Holmes-style mystery solving monologues in order to single handedly crack a case, no real-life Socratic classroom experience mirrors the in vacuo illustration of Athens’ infamous gadfly. And don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love reading Plato’s dialogues.
- What stories, images, or practices sustained you while you studied?
The image that sustained me the most through law school was that of bringing the tools that I acquired there to a philosophy graduate program afterwards. After being waitlisted at my dream program and then not getting in, I decided to take the bar exam. Law school sharpened my voice and analytic abilities. Practicing law tightens those skills even more while providing me with experience and insight which I know will be of enormous value to a graduate program when the time is right.
- Besides taking the bar exam, how did you transition from being a law student to being a lawyer?
As soon as I found a solid group of colleagues who shared my values and with whom I could contribute to a noble cause, the transition to practice felt surprisingly natural. The spirit of the goal carried me all the way. The team I work with is mightily geared towards attacking the problem of domestic violence in a fully informed and holistic manner. It has been a profoundly enlightening experience so far.
The Post-Law School Days
- How have you incorporated your legal studies into your everyday life (either in your career or outside of it)?
To be clear, I was more than adequately trained in the skillset of traditional legal analysis in law school. I also learned “the law.” When I started my job at the Domestic Violence Action Center, we were so understaffed that I was thrown into a divorce trial my second week. I had to brush up on my objections and evidence rules, but I got everything my client wanted and deserved. From then on, I’ve been utilizing my training from Elon on a daily basis.
The challenge is not using the skills I learned during my JD years; it’s learning when not to use them. The analysis that helps you get the results your client wants is not the same style of thinking that allows for meaningful communication with that same person. Human beings need to know that they are heard and empathized with. It’s easy to turn on the analytical skills once you have them. It is just as important however to learn how to turn them off, and just communicate authentically with a client. Also, it’s worth mentioning that while you should be proud of your incisive rhetorical skills, they may not be the best tools for relating to your friends, family, colleagues, and romantic partners.
- What do you tell people who ask you what it’s like be a lawyer?
I meet clients who are broken and afraid, and watch them become independent, strong, and free from domestic abuse. I’ve seen clients literally cry out of joy after we leave the court room. Those are powerful moments.
I get to problem-solve for people for a living. I get to help them navigate an intimidating and byzantine system of bureaucracy in order to secure for them the protection and justice that they deserve. I get to skewer their abuser on the stand. I do have to remind myself of that at times when I’m sitting at a desk, sifting through someone’s assets and debts during their divorce.
- One Last Question: What, if anything, do you want to share with our readers?
Your life is a piece of art; it’s OK to be creative in how you shape it. Take risks. Go off script. Keep what works, throw out what doesn’t. You’ll end up with a more impressive obituary that way. Most importantly, enjoy the process.