If you’re taking on the world as a socially conscious lawyer, don’t forget to take care of yourself as well. That was the message Alexander Chen ’15 delivered to the graduates in the second of this year’s Last Lectures.
“The legal profession is structured in such a way that you don’t really get opportunities to reflect,” he said. “You are meant to feel from the beginning of starting here, that you’re on a clock — The starting horn has issued, the gates have opened and now you’re horses and you’re racing on a track. And if you stop racing for a second, you’re going to fall behind. But that’s not really true; you’re not on a race and there’s no actual destination that everyone is trying to get to. It’s more like the gates have opened, you’re a horse and now you can just walk around.”
One of three professors chosen by the graduating class for this year’s Last Lectures, Chen broke ground as a Harvard Law student and litigator. He was the first openly trans editor of Harvard Law Review, and was later named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 20 in Law & Policy and one of the best lawyers under 30 by the National LBGTQ+ Bar Association. Among the cases he litigated were Amaya Cruz v. Miami-Dade County and Doe v. Trump, which respectively argued for the rights of trans people in prison and in the military.
Yet he took the occasion last week to poke a few holes in his own status as a groundbreaker. “When I was in law school, I was really invested in the idea that it was hard to be me. I was the only openly transgender law student here, and it felt like the world was on my shoulders, and everybody would decide how they felt about transgender people based on what I did. So, I had this hero-complex idea of who I was. And I told that story in order to fashion a career as a public interest advocate.” He also spoke of an “existential crisis” that struck him a few years into practicing. “Pioneering, trailblazing, whatever — That’s not even an identity, it’s a tagline that they put into a magazine. But I didn’t know what else I was, because that’s all I had spent my time doing for nearly a decade.”
The current graduates may well face such a moment of reckoning, he warned — especially if they take up the exhausting field of social justice law. “I call it the Marvel theory of social change — One hero standing alone by themselves single-handedly changing the system of justice. Human brains are really bad at handling complexity, so it’s easier to tell the story through someone who’s supposed to be a representative … So the average person going into the work is going to have an over-developed hero complex about their own individual role — ‘I alone can fix it’.” In truth, he said, all social change comes through collective work that’s often unrecognized. “And to be recognized and celebrated isn’t always the best thing. People feel this enormous pressure that comes from being a figurehead, standing in for a movement.”
Chen reached his own moment of truth after being hit with health issues, including catching Covid early in the pandemic. “I was forced to make some concrete quality-of-life improvements that I had totally neglected previously, including regularly going to the doctor and the dentist and sleeping right, and eating three meals a day, and not having a terrible schedule, and exercising regularly. Which I didn’t think was important until my health made me do it, and it just gives a lot of context. It feels less like a crisis all the time — and crisis mentalities are not really good ones to have if you are trying to be creative and forward-looking in the work. I didn’t recognize it, but my inability to take care of myself was impacting my ability to be more expansive in the thinking of my work.”
He recommended a few healthy steps for keeping perspective, including conversing with elder lawyers and those with different interests and communities. And he cautioned against feeling defeated when a case doesn’t go your way. He noted the Bowers v. Hardwick case  which upheld a ban on sodomy and was not overturned until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. “Sometimes you have the right arguments on your side, you believe the right merits are on your side, but you’re just going to lose. But picking yourself up and getting on with the work is how you get to Lawrence.”
On a lighter note, he recommended sometimes getting away from the law altogether. “Go learn how to ride a motorcycle. Go diving, go climb a mountain or learn how to fly. Or go and do something irrational for someone you love.”
Wrapping up his talk to a standing ovation, he urged the students not to think of their education as being finished. “Nothing is ever a finished product. I’m not, you’re not, the law is not, and the world is not. … I hope very much that if I get asked to do this in eight years, I would not say the same stuff I said today. And I hope that if I see you in eight years, you’ll tell me what you have learned. And we’re going to be excited to be here, because the world is still going to feel like it’s full of possibilities.”
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