Among the responsibilities borne by a law firm practioner is conducting autumn interviews of extremely bright, articulate and eager law students seeking employment the following summer, prior to their final year of school. Lawyers are often trained in how best to phrase the interview questions, avoid asking questions that off limits, and answer correctly the students’ inevitable inquiries about the firm. Personally, I take advantage of the interviews to pose questions that allow me to test whatever ideas happen to be on my mind at the time, while affording the interviewees the opportunity to evidence their thoughtfulness and deftness.
Over the past several of weeks, I have asked each of about ten students the following question:
“If the federal government decides to provide direct assistance to victims of Hurrican Katrina, what is the appropriate relative allocation of federal funds as between two families comprised of the identical number of family members with identical ages, each family devestated by the Hurricane and left with absolutely no housing, belongings and savings. But, although the two families currently appear to be identical in composition and need, prior to Katrina they lived very different lives. One of the two families owned a lovely home, two cars and a profitable retail business (all destroyed by the Hurricane and not covered by insurance). Prior to the Hurricane, the second family, by contrast, lived in a tenement, the parents barely holding menial jobs, and the children suffering for inadequate nutrition and substandard education, but not lacking for love.”
The answers I received were as expected. Several of the students felt that the formerly comfortable family should receive larger grants since that family had lost more, and should be made as close to whole as possible, while the second family required less to be made whole. Others felt that once the two families had been thrust by the forces of nature into the identical poverty, each family should be treated identically. After listening to their respective answers, I asked each interviewee if there were any other alternative approaches. Only one of the students, having identified the two choices listed above (and preferring the former), could not fathom a third alternative, despite my reiterating the request for a third alternative several times.
Actually, two of the interviewees had posited the third alternative as their preferred result. Those two students advocated that the formerly deprived family should receive the larger grant since that family was less likely to be able to recover on its own, or without greater assistance. The family that has always been poor, therefore, was more deserving or needy of governmental intervention.
No doubt, the attitudes of the respondents reflect biases borne of their respective personal and communal experiences. But I was irked by one repeated view expressed by many of those favoring a larger allocation to the formerly comfortable family; that the loss of comfort was more traumatic and painful to that family than to the family that had always been poor.
I can imagine that the experience of losing wealth and comfort itself causes great pain over the loss. I cannot, however, accept the view that the discomfort or unacceptability of poverty experienced by a formerly wealthy individual is any greater than the discomfort and unacceptability of poverty experienced by the individual born into poverty. Both suffer equally when their respective children are unable to gain access to quality medical or dental providors. Pangs of hunger are felt identically by all, as is the anguish of insecurity and vulnerability. No doubt, luxuries once enjoyed by the formerly wealthy may represent a void for only those who had once partook, but it is not the responsibility of government (or philanthropists) to ensure continuing accessibility to luxuries. The deprivation of basic needs are suffered identically by all.
The lingering challenge to my view, however, was an often quoted Talmudic passage that tells of Talmudic personalities ensuring the continued availability of luxuries for wealthy individuals who had lost their fortune. Ethics and values articulated in the Talmud trump my personal inclinations, and so I am compelled to explore the wisdom and insight of Talmudic teachings when they appear to be in conflict with my views. Through such study, I endeavor to identify the manner in which my assumptions must be altered, or I discover that I had misunderstood the Talmud teaching and the teaching is actually consistent with my original view. (I, of course, root for the latter.)
Assisting me in my quest to understand this Talmudic lesson, a prominent rabbi directed me to a leading early Talmudic comentary. The commentator explained that, in the referenced passage, the Talmud is addressing exclusively a person whose loss of wealth is not yet publically known. Providing luxuries to such an individual falls within the context of preventing public shame. Once the person’s reduced financial status is known, however, the newly impovershed person should receive charity in the same measure as every pauper.
Deciding which highly qualified students should be hired as summer associates is always a difficult task. But one qualification that a potential attorney should have is the ability to consider all possible solutions to a problem.