Clinical Law Prof Blog

Editor: Jeffrey R. Baker
Pepperdine University
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Thursday, May 8, 2014

On Surviving Law School

While many of you were engaging in critical discussions about how to become better clinicians last week in Chicago, I was presenting at an attorney training on domestic violence and missing my favorite conference of the year. At the training, I participated (and yes, occasionally eavesdropped) on conversations about law school experiences. Several attorneys disclosed how challenging their law school years had been – not because of the workload or the competition – but because of what they perceived as an environment that was hostile to their personal ideals and values. One participant expressed her belief that her legal education denigrated the same social justice values that propelled her towards that very legal education. Another presenter described her prestigious law school as a boot camp – where they tried to tear down the individual in order to build up the lawyer, stripping students of sentimental ideals such as fairness and justice and discouraging critical thinking about privilege and hierarchy. And no, none of them were familiar with Duncan Kennedy. I asked.

This is not the first time I (nor, I suspect, most of you) have heard such comments. Several law students I interviewed about their volunteer work following a tornado articulated sharp critiques of the values imparted through law school. A student in a Public Interest Seminar told a story of a Torts professor who warned students not to use the “f-word” in his class - by which he meant “fair” - and the profound impact that directive had on her participation and confidence. A 3L recently responding to a request for advice from an admitted student passionately implored her to remember who she is today and to fight to remain that person every day of the next three years.

Public interest drift in law schools is well-documented, as is the depression experienced by many law students, so these are not new observations. Nonetheless, I find myself pondering the same old deep, dark (and admittedly melodramatic) questions. Is law school something that some students simply have to survive or endure in order to achieve their long-term goals? Are we squandering one of our best natural resources – the idealism of bright, young adults? Why can’t we teach students to “think like a lawyer” without destroying the social justice motivations that brought them to law school? Are we complicit in a law school culture that at best remains silent, and at worst, denigrates issues of social justice? What more can we, as clinicians, do to make the law school curriculum more responsive to students who believe a law degree is still a tool they can use (to quote one incoming student) “to make the world a better place?”

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