Inspiring success without victory

By Letters from Readers

I attended a lecture this week at the Law School. I was debating with myself, as I walked across the windy Midway (the separator between the University of Chicago Law School and the College), whether the hike would be worthwhile. Then I recalled the title of the book written by the speaker whose talk I was going to attend, Success Without Victory: Lost Legal Battles and the Long Road to Justice in America. I smiled to myself, and walked straight on.

I had read the speaker’s all-too-impressive biography carefully: his involvement in human rights work, his untiring efforts working with the Center for Constitutional Rights, his authorship of several books, and his challenge to Congress on several important issues. Granted, I found all this fascinating, but just reading the words didn’t make much of an impression on me. It was after hearing the man who held all the titles I read about that I was seriously set thinking, so much so I thought it important to share his thoughts.

Professor Jules Lobel began this type of litigation in the 1980s. What type? The type where he lost case after case, only to emerge stronger in conviction, though weaker in sheer number of victories. He addressed the obvious question, “What is the value of bringing out all these cases, and repeatedly losing?” To answer this question, he spoke of both American culture and the American legal system.

American culture lays a lot of value on success. Interestingly, Lobel spoke of how in so many cultures around the world, bitter defeats are celebrated and fallen heroes remembered. As an example, take the Serb festival remembering the disastrous defeat of the Battle of Kosovo. He urged that public interest lawyers look beyond winning and losing.

Listening to him, I began to think how this cultural stress to always be successful would explain the hesitation people have to take up what they would call “lost causes.” These are not necessarily “lost” but perhaps wouldn’t win them cases in a court of law or enable them to earn big bucks.

His discourse about the legal importance of such cases fascinated me much more. Even before the Civil War, there were always Americans who chose to march to their own beats rather than toe the line. Lobel spoke of some abolitionists in this respect.

He then said something that should be given some thought by any socially aware person. He spoke of how the most important victories are often not so helpful to reconstruct or bring about change; shouldn’t we, then, re-evaluate the value we lay on victory?

A legal battle about the Guantanamo Bay issue was Lobel’s best example of the importance of litigating such cases. The public interest in the success of this case was in fact its first success. People began giving some thought to what was happening at Guantanamo Bay at the hands of their government. When amicus briefs began to be filed, the Supreme Court, in view of all this pressure, had to take the case up, and right when it did so, the government began cleaning up its act. Whether this case lost or won was not so important anymore; it was already successful.

With conviction and surety Lobel asserted, “in order to make a change in this country, you have to be willing to lose.”

I write this piece not so much for anyone else as I did for myself. I do not want to lose the awe I felt for him and other men and women like him. People always say that 20 years later, “you will ‘mature’ and will lose childish hopes,” or that “your priorities will change.” I hope they are all wrong.

Unfortunately the time of Lobel’s talk conflicted with another event in the Law School, which resulted in very low attendance. This is truly unfortunate because not only all lawyers-to-be, but all citizens in general, would have enjoyed the chance to feel the joy of listening to this man who fights for truth. He is one to know of success without victory. He might not have had the “victory” to get a lecture hall swarming with people, but he was successful in touching at least one of the people in that room and inspiring him to think serious thoughts. How many lectures do I come out of feeling this way? Not too many.