Neither sacred nor profane: Real life, real law schools
In the middle of the AALS annual meeting and reflecting upon how we in the legal academy explain, justify, defend, and yes, critique, what we do:
In a provocative speech at the AALS luncheon this afternoon, federal appellate judge Jose Cabranes (introduced by his former student, Justice Sonia Sotomayor) sharply admonished law schools to focus more squarely on bread-and-butter courses, to curtail efforts at globalization, and to attend more constructively to the third year of law school to see whether it could better be utilized as a transition into the profession. The present state of legal scholarship came under criticism by Judge Cabranes as well.
Much of the critique by the learned judge rests on an empirical basis that is anachronistic. Changes in legal education in the past decade have been substantial and innovative. This has been true at Northwestern; this has been true elsewhere. But what is vexing is how poorly American law professors, including deans, have described and explained these innovations to the press and public.
Bread and butter courses? The first-year curriculum at every law school, while not without problems, focuses on core competencies and subjects. This focus aims to prepare students for upper-divison specialization; it also prepares students for bar examinations — and that is a good, not bad, thing. Much of the upper division is elective, yet students pursue advanced work in what, by any measure, is within the core of the legal canon. The challenge for a law student in a diverse, complex professional environment is to make the most of what is, after all, just two years of advanced work.
The retreat from globalization? Huh? The attention directed by substantial segments of the professorate to problems of the world is, to me, a source of pride. The concern usually voiced is that American law schools do not do enough to orient students toward the increasingly international legal environment, not that they do too much. But, here again, perhaps we do a poor job in explaining what we do and why we do it.
The third year of law school? A tough subject, to be sure. The (proper) rise of clinical education, the focus on supervised research, the availability of salient of relevant extracurricular activities, and so on, all suggest that students are rightly pushing law schools to develop and maintain substantial programs as bridges into the legal profession. The predicament of the legal economy make these programs more essential. And, to the best of my knowledge, law schools are heeding the message.
There is much to say, to be sure, about many elements of the modern law school curriculum. Eminent thinkers and jurists, including Judge Cabranes, admirably wade into these debates. Still and all, these broad-scale critiques ought to be framed around current information about what actually goes on within the walls of American law schools.
I extend an open invitation to my colleagues in the bench and bar to come to Northwestern and kick the tires. Take a look around; talk to professors and students; look at our curriculum; talk to our alumni. Do the same at other law schools. Then let the constructive debate begin!
UPDATE: I have referred liberally to remarks of Judge Cabranes at AALS. Because I haven’t reproduced his remarks in full, I urge readers to seek out a tape or transcript to see the good judge’s comments in their full context.