Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Law Schools Should Teach Students to Serve Where the Needs are the Greatest

I have the honor of attending the District of Columbia Circuit Judicial Conference this week.  (Thank you, Judge Kessler).  Among the presentations this morning was a panel on the Future of Legal Education.  Deans Erwin Chemerinsky from Irvine School of Law, Veryl Miles from Catholic Columbus School of Law and David Van Zandt from North Western presented.

They discussed at length their concerns that the shrinking large law firm employment market was driving changes in legal education.  They focused on the need to ensure that their students would be competitive for the remaining “big law” jobs.  I stood in line to ask a question, but the program ended before they got to my spot in the queue.  The program, however, does require a response.

There are more than 37 million people in the United States living below the federal poverty line and scores of millions others who while not technically “poor” have inadequate incomes.   There are very limited legal services for those at the very bottom of the income scale and for those who have too much income to qualify for a free lawyer, but too little to pay a lawyer, there is nothing.  Around ½ of one percent of the legal industry is dedicated to serving people with low-incomes.  The overwhelming majority of money and lawyer time is dedicated to business interests and the concerns of the wealthy.

While law schools are not solely responsible for this disparity in access, they play a role.  The singularly important US News and World report rankings weigh heavily the rate of law placement in high paying corporate jobs, and as the deans each admitted this morning, these rankings are everything.  As a consequence, legal education has been designed to make students attractive for firm jobs, the cost of education has risen to match law firm salaries and the shrinking law firm job pipeline has law schools in a panic. 

I suggest that law schools, at least as represented by these deans, have misconstrued their role.  It was telling that even when they discussed clinical legal education, it was in the context of teaching skills that were transferrable to a business related law practice. 

I recognize that the view from academia is not monolithic and that not all law schools or faculty are the same.  There are terrific public interest programs and a few public interest law schools.  These important programs prove the point I am trying to make, rather than take away from it.  There is a large unmet need for lawyers for ordinary people.

The link between law schools and big law feeds the perverse misallocation of legal resources.  Rather than target training for the highest paying elite jobs, schools should look to teach students to serve where the needs are the greatest.  The “academy” may find it less prestigious to teach students who will go into small practices that are affordable to the middle class or into legal services.  It might mean that tuitions should be lower so that the salary pressures are less extreme.   But the social good that comes with greater access for those who are now shut out will be huge.  There must be some gratification in teaching students to make a career out of finding justice and service. 

 

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    4 Comments

    • Betsy Gwin on Jun 19, 2010

      As a former legal aid intern, I'm proud to announce the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy will be devoting an entire issue next year to this important topic.  The Journal is partnering with the Poverty Section of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) to explore and discuss the role of “access to justice” initiatives in the context of clinical education and the preparation of law students to take their place in the profession’s response to the crisis we call the justice gap between the rich and poor.  '
      We are soliciting articles on this topic through September 1, 2010, for publication in the Journal's Spring 2011 issue and possible presentation at AALS's national conference in January 2011.  You can read the full Call for Papers here.  Questions and submissions can be emailed to gjplp18@gmail.com

    • Scott on Jun 16, 2010

      Great points all around. Linked to this on my website: http://scottkuhagen.com/2010/06/17/what-im-reading-june-16/

    • CecilRobinson on Jun 14, 2010

      I think it's sad and a sham that some of the larger Law Schools selectively weed out those that can represent the Minority Class (Average Folks) namely Saint Louis University Law School ! they age descriminate along with Racial bias.

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