Sunday, January 12, 2014
This essay is by Dean Frank H. Wu, who is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. This blog entry appeared originally at Huffington Post.
My wife has taken to warning me, "The press will turn on you, Sherlock."
That's a line from the nonpareil BBC Sherlock Holmes series. I recently binge watched this updated version of the detective stories, set in modern London. Holmes true to form appears to be vaguely uncomfortable around people, perhaps because of Asperger's syndrome. Watson has returned from a tour of duty as a medical doctor in Afghanistan, as in the original canon. People sometimes mistake the duo for a gay couple.
In the cliffhanger last installment to be broadcast -- the series has been on hiatus for some time, as happens with English television -- Holmes has become famous thanks to Watson's writing (in the very up-to-date form of blogging).
Watson tells Holmes, "The press will turn, Sherlock. They always turn. And they'll turn on you."
In the past year, I have been flattered to receive accolades from various media sources. It's enough to make my wife worry. During this time, it seems a day has not passed without another article lambasting legal educators in general. It's hard to keep up with the accusations.
At my law school, we've been working on profound structural changes. These reforms include reducing the class size significantly and launching high-quality on-line courses. We've started Lawyers for America, which places third-year students into a hands-on externship with a public agency and then guarantees them a post-graduation paid fellowship in the same office. We've also accepted students into a Master's degree program that trains them to blend law with other disciplines, to prepare them for leadership in their current careers, not to become practicing attorneys.
We are not alone. Other institutions have adapted to the marketplace as well. They have used their own strategic advantages. Clinical training and international perspectives are among the innovations.
The aura of deceit, though, that has descended on law deans makes the challenges all that much more formidable. I look at the reporting on these improvements, the blogging, and, most especially, the various comments that are posted on the internet.
They are a blend of distrustful and welcoming. Some assert we are acting out of self-interest. Others allege that we care only about rankings or revenue.
Truth is, I would be a skeptic as well. Even as the economy recovers, there is a sense -- based on a reasonable rationale -- that the American Dream has lost its luster. Families face the real threat of downward mobility. We must become reconciled to competition nationally and personally, such that the minimum levels of credentials and skill sets ratchet upward.
The legal profession, and legal education by extension, are only an example of the problem. Law happens to be an especially troubling case. Law is the foundation for everything else in a democracy. Higher education is the engine of the American Dream of upward mobility.
Being admitted to law school, with the expectation of becoming a lawyer, symbolized acceptance of not only an individual but also a community. It promised access to the justice system; equality in public life; and, perhaps for the most ambitious and the most idealistic, the ability to change the world. The expectations were set so high that disillusionment was inevitable, in hindsight.
Yet I continue to have confidence. Our nation has an openness to immigrants and ideas. We have a system that allows both to flourish, a system structured through law.
There will always be a need for lawyers -- the right number of lawyers, not the excessive quantity that have been produced lately. There also is increasing need for legal professionals who are not lawyers, but who work alongside lawyers in areas such as compliance, human resources, and criminal justice.
Education returns value. Young people with only a liberal arts undergraduate degree, or without any bachelor's at all, have much worse prospects than those with advanced levels of higher education.
t's never easy to restore faith. But doing so always requires cooperation. The most important skill of a law professor is knowing the questions to ask, even if one does not know the answers to give. It is imperative to me that I ask the questions, and I have confidence that together we will find the answers.
For our students, I tell them that the economy is not good, recovering slowly, and likely to be dynamic. I strive to show them, however, that we are on their side. I don't know that I always succeed, but it does not serve their interests to end up adversarial to those who are able to help their cause.
In the Sherlock Holmes reboot, the "Reichenbach Fall" episode ends with Holmes suspected of being nothing more than a fraud. Fans know he will be vindicated in due course.