Jason Swensen: How BYU’s law school helps my daughter remember the ‘forgotten’ ones

In a few weeks, my daughter, Carla Swensen-Haslam, will graduate from Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. 

Her commencement arrives at a memorable time for the law school. It’s been 50 years since President Harold B. Lee announced plans to begin training future attorneys at the Church-owned university.

The past three years have surely been memorable for both me and my daughter. Carla phoned me almost nightly to discuss the lessons she learned that day. If a Juris Doctorate could be earned vicariously, I’d be ready to hang a lawyer’s shingle of my own. 

We rarely talked long. She usually needed to hustle back to her studies of civil procedure, torts, constitutional law, contracts and other subjects forming the backbone of America’s legal system.

But I relished each phone call.

Read more: 50 years of BYU Law School: An inside look at the charge to teach laws of man in the light of God’s laws

It was clear that her law professors were equipping her with the tools required of young attorneys. But our nightly conversations revealed much more. Besides learning the basics of, say, criminal and property law, she was also deepening her understanding of gospel principles such as mercy, advocacy and justice.

Carla’s sensitivity to those eternal laws that transcend courtrooms and case rulings was honed early in her legal studies at BYU.

“My 1L [first year of study] orientation was held in the moot courtroom on the second floor of the BYU Law School,” Carla told me recently. “The painting that you see right before you enter the courtroom is Maynard Dixon’s ‘Forgotten Man’.

“During our orientation, [law school] Dean Gordon Smith explained why he chose to hang that painting in that location. He wanted every law student, before they entered the courtroom, to see the ‘Forgotten Man,’ and ask themselves: ‘Who is the forgotten man in my circles?’”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the law school to shift to virtual learning, Carla passed by Dixon’s “Forgotten Man” daily on her way to class or moot court competitions.

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Forgotten Man, 1934, oil on canvas, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Herald R. Clark
Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Forgotten Man, 1934, oil on canvas, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Herald R. Clark Credit: Brigham Young University Museum of Art

She always answered Dean Smith’s challenge, pausing for a moment and asking herself how she can advocate for someone forgotten. Someone in need. (A reproduction of the “Forgotten Man” hangs in the office of jurist President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency.)

“That painting was a daily reminder to me that as a daughter of God, a future lawyer and a member of my community, I needed to discover, ‘who is the forgotten man in my circle?’

“My professors have done an excellent job teaching me to find the forgotten men and the forgotten women in my community. I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m going to have a billable hour and a family and a Church calling. It will be so easy to just walk by the forgotten man — not because I’m a bad person, but just because I have so many things going on in my life.”

BYU’s law school, Carla observed, “has taught me to avoid walking by.” Instead, she is determined to utilize the legal knowledge she has acquired to help.

“The role of the lawyer is to perform legal work and be a servant of the court,” she said. “But I think another key role is just listening and being there for someone in their moment of need. 

“At some point, we will all be the ‘forgotten man’ who has been kicked to the curb and discarded. And in those times, I’ve learned we need to turn to our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Carla’s interactions with her professors and fellow students have also seasoned her appreciation of the Lord’s justice and mercy.

 “Law school has helped me recognize that both justice and mercy can co-exist,” she said. “In Alma, we are told ‘justice exerciseth all his demands’ and ‘mercy claimeth all which is her own’ (Alma 42: 24)

“There have been multiple times when my professors have asked me what that means. I’ve thought a lot about that, and I’ve come to recognize that my role as a lawyer, as an advocate, is to look at an individual and identify where that person deserves mercy.

“It also reminds me of my own relationship with Jesus Christ, because the day will come when I will be at the judgement bar and He will be my Advocate to the Father.”

As an ethnic minority, a woman and the daughter of an immigrant, Carla has also been lifted by several personal examples at BYU Law. 

“It’s been incredibly encouraging to have professors with similar backgrounds as mine such as Dean Carolina Núñez, Professor Michalyn Steele and Professor Melinda Bowen. They are all women of color and brilliant professors who do excellent research and present all over the world.

“They are paving the way for me and they give me hope.”

Such support from her mentors, she added, is an extension of the school’s deanery and faculty.

“I have had a great experience at BYU Law because every one of my professors believed in me. They believed that I have the talents, the skills and the knowledge to be successful in whatever I pursue.”

Following next month’s commencement, Carla will be cramming for the state bar exam later this summer. She has accepted a position at a Salt Lake City-based firm. Establishing her place as a fledgling associate at an august law firm will sometimes be overwhelming. But I hope she keeps her own reproduction of Dixon’s “Forgotten Man” close by.

And I hope she claims her own sacred role as an advocate.

During the fall of her 2L year, Carla joined a small group of  law students and professors at an immigrant detention center in tiny Dilley, Texas, providing legal services to asylum-seeking women from Central America. It was draining work. Most of the women at the detention center had been victimized. Many were witnesses to horror. They were forgotten women.

Carla spoke to each woman in the native Spanish of her own mother and grandmother.

“I hope I was able to bring some comfort to them. I met with over 20 women that week — and in every single conversation, we ended up talking about God. … In those moments, I wasn’t a future lawyer. I was ministering and remembering. I was their sister and a fellow daughter of God.”