Judge David Dreyer: Law is about people, emotion and all

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Indiana Lawyer Commentary

IJA-Dreyer-DavidMy daughter lives in Oregon but she never calls. But the other night she did text. Of course I did not find it until later, and it simply reported in plain terms the largest historical event of her young adult life. No glee, no joy, just a simple statement about what happened in Pakistan. But I have not been able to stop thinking what made it so important to contact her parents.

I am reminded of two different times when, as a practicing lawyer, I was conducting a direct examination. One time years ago, it was a routine uncontested divorce final hearing – no problems, no issues. But when I simply asked, “Is your marriage irretrievably broken?” (required legal talk), my client stopped, looked down, and struggled to answer through bitter, grieving tears – I never saw this coming. I had to help her from the courtroom. Some years later, I was questioning a young witness during the Mike Tyson grand jury investigation. When I asked her about her observations of the victim the day after the rape, she stopped and suddenly ran out of the room sobbing. Again, I did not see this coming, and I spent the next hour consoling this young person who had such strong unrealized feelings that could not be suppressed.

We lawyers and judges are privileged, whether we like it or not, to powerful and unpredictable human emotions. “Law is about people,” someone once said. And people are everywhere in the law – even corporations are made up of shareholders and employees. There are landowners, spouses, injured plaintiffs, witnesses, court staff, etc. One of my most moving experiences as a judge occurred one afternoon in an almost empty courtroom, with just me, a lawyer, a court reporter, and a woman who had lost her son in a car accident. It was an uncontested damages hearing for a default judgment, and the grieving mother had to briefly describe her pain and suffering for the record to justify the uncollectible judgment. Who was I to whom she had to justify her grief? As I watched, I felt so utterly unworthy to share such a dignified moment with such a noble person. Again, I did not see it coming. After the brief hearing, I came down, hugged her, and thanked her for doing something so difficult. Indeed, the law is an entirely human enterprise.

Judges are humans, too, and can also sometimes be confidantes and consolers. I have had more than one instance in my 14 judicial years when lawyers (men and women) shared personal and professional problems in my office with tears and worry. But nothing is so weighty as the conflict and concern that arises when a lawyer faces a tough case – and the burden gets to them when they don’t see it coming.

So why are so many lawyers unhappy if there is so much rich human experience bounding about? Experts generally point to several factors which usually become reported as too much hard work, too little gratification, and the overall sense that one will never do anything like Atticus Finch, or even one of those guys on “Law & Order.” To which we must say, “So what?” Unhappiness does not spring from a lack of experiences, but rather a lack of appreciation when they come our way so unexpectedly. When I find myself surprised because I didn’t see something coming, that is an epiphany of sorts. I can realize that my work then allows me to perhaps share – a time, a solution, a promise to work forward – that is unique to that case and to that person, whether that person is a corporation or a grieving mom.

So when we are faced with that occasional uncivil moment with a judge, opposing counsel, even a colleague at the firm, we will do well to allow them to be human. Our trained logic and reason may get us only so far, because as Blaise Pascal famously observed, “The heart has reasons that Reason does not know.” It is not trite to think that the merits of a common courtesy, a handshake, a pat on the back, a soft word of conciliation are just as important as any legal argument. It is those times that may make our profession a rewarding one, whether you are a judge, lawyer, party, witness, whatever – just as long as you are a human, it would seem. In fact, we should resolve to look for those moments, because they may come when we don’t see them coming – like a late-night text from a daughter far away.•


The Hon. David J. Dreyer
has served on the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.