RECENTLY a friend asked if I enjoy the practice of law as much today as I did 12 years ago upon graduating law school. I replied that I enjoy the intellectual challenge (and if truth be known the prestige and income the law offers), but I no longer look to the law with a sense of reverence or as a source of justice. She seemed puzzled.
Trying to put my feelings into words, I cautioned that skepticism is not cynicism and that the disappointment that always accompanies reality is not the same as despair.
I explained that the ''law'' simply appears less majestic to me than it did a dozen years ago. Justice, truth and honor (whatever they are) seem to have outlived their usefulness except as marketing tools or as dusty relics to be wheeled out once or twice a year, like old war veterans, on Flag Day or the Fourth of July.
Sometimes (maybe on my bad dys) the legal system resembles an Alice in Wonderland world where nothing is what it appears to be, and the realization dawns that many times the law, rather than solving a problem, is the problem.
Examples abound. No-fault divorce permits a husband to walk away guilt-free from his 40-year marriage, leaving behind a 60-year old wife to stare with terrified loneliness into an abyss of economic uncertainty. Or, it grants a wife and mother license to ''find'' herself while a court orders her husband to finance her journey and awards her the children to keep her company.
Judges and lawyers labor feverishly to achieve fairness, all the while not seeing or wishing to see that the law itself creates more pain and anguish than it heals, and not once stopping for a moment to ask where it is leading us.
Our legislators today deem judges incapable of dispensing justice except as it comes pre-packaged and pre-measured in mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines. The result is that America's per-capita incarceration rate is greater than that of even the Soviet Union.
True justice is composed of many ingredients, punishment without doubt being one, but the recipe must be blended with compassion, patience, forgiveness and recognition of our responsibility to the accused. Absent these ingredients in their proper measure, justice becomes nothing but a euphemism for a hammer of revenge and retribution, which paradoxically punishes not only the wrongdoer but also those who wield it recklessly.
The list goes on. To a few ''unalienable rights'' have been added an endless array of wishes and whims, all taking root as rights, all legitimized by those eager to swing the courthouse doors open wide to consider every imaginable gripe, complaint and grievance. Making matters worse, judges have abdicated their role to so-called experts of every stripe and color who succeed in lining their pockets and multiplying their kind, while muddying and obfuscating the issues they profess to be expert in.
The legal system more and more resembles a gigantic game of trivial pursuit, which pits neighbor against neighbor and group against group, all the while providing fertile ground in which are nurtured greed, revenge, deceit and every other unsavory human characteristic.
Expediency can look like justice, good like evil, fashion like truth, and cruelty like courage. On occasion they may be virtually indistinguishable, especially when viewed through a prism clouded by emotions. But a legal system using too much of the former at the expense of the latter provides a very shaky foundation on which to mold the social contract.
I hope she understood.
Mr. McOscar, an attorney, practices in West Chester, Pa.