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Big win at NLRB for Northwestern athletes

UPDATE: Professor Zev Eigen discusses implications of the NLRB ruling on public radio


The National Labor Relations Board today decided that Northwestern University football players are employees, and that means the players can vote on whether to form a union.

Peter Sung Ohr, Director of the NLRB’s Chicago office, wrote in his ruling:

College Athletes Players Association (“the Petitioner”) is a labor organization within the meaning of the Act. At the hearing, the Employer stipulated that the Petitioner was a labor organization if two conditions were met: (1) its football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are found to be “employees” within the meaning of the Act; and (2) the petitioned-for-unit was found to be an appropriate unit within the meaning of the Act. I find that both of these conditions have been met.

Here is a link to the decision, with thanks to Inside Higher Ed for posting it. It’s a lengthy document but well worth a read. It describes some of the cultural and financial mechanics that operate behind Northwestern football—mechanics that are certainly not unique to one school.

Many legal experts were not optimistic that the students would prevail, including my colleague Zev Eigen, who is one of the media’s go-to experts on this subject. In January Zev wrote a great post for this blog in which he described the relevant history and precedents, and suggested the law be revisited to clarify “…categories of work that now dominate the employment landscape.”

It’s fascinating stuff.

The NCAA, not surprisingly, disagrees with the decision, and the University will likely appeal, so this is a story that is only beginning to be told. Judging from the incredible public interest—this exploded on social media today, in case you didn’t notice—we can expect a lot of conversation around these issues. And that’s a big win, too.


A most unfortunate narrative

Many law schools are working hard to keep up enrollments and student credentials; some are indeed struggling.  As deans and university leaders work hard to make adjustments on the expenses side in order to deal constructively with these difficult issues, there has emerged an almost daily narrative about how the sky is falling (which is isn’t).

The most recent iteration of this is the news emerging from a handful of schools that faculty members are being offered retirement incentives.  Although I am in no vantage point to assess the wisdom of any of these strategies for any of these law schools, it strikes me as a sensible reaction to enrollment circumstances that are, for the most part, currently out of control for some law schools.  The business of retirement incentives is not, of course, a new phenomenon.  With the end of mandatory retirement, university departments can manage human resource costs only by looking at creative tactics such as retirement incentives.  Sometimes this will involve more senior (and typically highly compensated) members of the community; other times, given the long careers ahead of young faculty members, this will involve incentives nearer the front end.  These incentives create a dynamic of negotiation not distinct from any other sort of employer-worker negotiation.  They are tried-and-true carrots, not sticks.

That law schools are looking to manage their costs by taking close looks at their faculty labor force seems entirely sensible.  It is hardly the harbinger of disaster; and, like the press releases that are attached to these proposals, these are important messages to the wider community of students and alumni that the law schools are looking at constructive ways of preserving strong academic programs and high quality in their student bodies.

These should be welcome developments.  Folks like our friends at Above the Law, who are habitually cranky about law school decisionmaking and the motivations of academic leaders, should say:  “Hurray.  It’s about time law schools take a hard look at costs.”  But, instead, the headline of the day is essentially “Law Schools are Crashing Around Us.  Witness the Scramble to ‘Kick Out’ Faculty Members.”  Think I am exaggerating?  Here’s a link to a post by the sober Pepperdine Law professor and influential blogger, Paul Caron.

Take a breath, doomsayers.  Have some perspective.  This is evidence of adaptation, not desperation.  And you are not helping the general situation, IMHO!


Judge Horace Ward ’59, an extraordinary alum

Amazing denouement to a story that began with a talented, intrepid young Georgean, Horace Ward, who, as an African American, was rejected as a law student at the University of Georgia in the early 1950’s.  He persisted with his strong claim of racial discrimination and the dispute ended only when Mr. Ward was successful in seeking admission to Northwestern University School of Law, from which he graduated in 1959.

He continued on to a stellar career as a lawyer, a state senator, and, with President Carter’s appointment, the first African-American federal judge in Georgia.  The University of Georgia, of course, become desegregated in later years — surely in no small part due to the efforts of this remarkable man.

This May, U. Georgia will be awarding Judge Ward an honorary doctor of laws.  I know all members of the NU Law community will commend UGA on this appropriate, if long overdue, gesture.  And, likewise, all will join me in a warm congratulations to the great Judge Ward!

Here are two interesting commentaries, the first from the UGA press release and the second, somewhat more fulsome, story from an encyclopedia entry.

(thanks to Tony Tangora, in our development office, for pointing me to this story).



An End to Mandatory Life without Parole Sentences for Juveniles in Illinois

Earlier this week the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in People v. Davis, deciding that the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama is retroactive in Illinois. The Miller case decided that children under the age of 18 at the time of their offenses could not receive a sentence of life without parole without consideration of their specific circumstances. Now, individuals currently serving mandatory juvenile life sentences without parole in Illinois will have an opportunity to have resentencing hearings. These hearings will allow judges to weigh all of the circumstances in the 80-odd cases that were subject to these mandatory sentences.

An article in today’s edition of the Chicago Tribune focused on the perspective of judges in particular: “Ruling offers hope to some imprisoned as youths: Judges also pleased by end to mandatory life terms for juveniles.” The article highlights the tireless efforts of lawyers in the Children and Family Justice Center to, in the words of Alison Flaum, Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Legal Director of the CFJC, “…demonstrate the problems with mandatory, one-size-fits-all sentencing.”

“These are but two of the many examples of the impact of Bluhm’s work in the representation of clients and on justice reform,” Tom Geraghty, Director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic (and Northwestern Law alum!) told me earlier today. “Working with others, Bluhm faculty provide important leadership in an impressive array of justice-related activities. Our faculty-led initiatives provide unequaled educational experiences for our students.  It is my hope that we will be able to capture and convey what Bluhm faculty are accomplishing while, at the same time, continuing to work collaboratively with the justice community (and with other leaders in clinical education) and modeling the best of professionalism for our students.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

If you are interested in additional information and perspectives on this decision, the Children and Family Justice Center published a recap of the Davis case and its implications on their blog, Youth Matters, and Joshua Tepfer published a thoughtful article about how this relates to his work on innocence cases on the Center on Wrongful Convictions blog.

Thank you to my colleagues for their extraordinary work in this area, and for their important contributions to juvenile justice.


Disruptive innovation in lawyering; perspective from the U.K.

Interesting essay (thanks, again, to Bill Henderson for the pointer).


Why Bother with Global Community Work?

There are lots of reasons to encourage students to work and study abroad. I’ve discussed why I think this is important, as well as some of Northwestern Law’s international initiatives, on this blog. Today I encourage you to read my colleague Juliet Sorenson’s thoughts on this subject: The University as Global Citizen, published earlier this week on the Health and Human Rights blog.

Juliet and an interdisciplinary group of students—from the School of Law, Feinberg School of Medicine, and Kellogg School of Management—left yesterday to travel to Douentza, Mali, as part of the Access to Health program. Students in her Health and Human Rights class have spent this semester researching health needs and issues in Mali in preparation for this trip. Once in Douentza, they will work closely with health care providers and community leaders to develop and implement a meaningful, sustainable health intervention specifically for that community.

The Access to Health trip is one example of the type of international human rights projects Northwestern students will undertake during Spring Break. International Team Projects is another: under the supervision of a faculty sponsor, law students travel abroad to conduct research on topics of their choosing. The students work in teams to develop the research topic; prepare advance materials including extensive briefing materials on the country’s history, culture, and legal and political systems; and plan the logistics of field work. Once in country they interview government officials, legal scholars, policy makers, and business and civic leaders, and conduct other fact-gathering as required by the research scope.

This year teams will travel to Cuba, Chile/Argentina, Myanmar/Thailand, and South Africa, to explore questions including Constitutional rights to housing, human rights in the mining industry, foreign direct investment and entrepreneurship, banking, freedom of expression in journalism and filmmaking, and environmental issues.

These are excellent examples of the type of global experiential learning Juliet writes about, and they illustrate the role Universities can play in improving the lives of people around the world. It is, as she says, quoting John Masefield, “…one of the things that makes a University beautiful.”



NU Law alums sworn into the Supreme Court bar

on motion of our distinguished alum and Supreme Court advocate par excellence, Carter Phillips ’77.

Here is a lovely photo.


Northwestern University announces multi-billion $$ fundraising campaign

NU notice here.

The Law School is hard at work in developing its strategic priorities and case statement for its campaign, to be launched in September of this year.  This campaign, which will surely be the largest in the history of the Law School and among the largest of U.S. law schools generally, will help provide us the resources with which to undertake valuable innovations, support the important professional and academic work of our faculty and students, address student financial need, and build an enduring legacy for the Northwestern Law School for the years and decades to come.

Stay tuned for news about our campaign over the coming weeks and, as well, for information about our fall launch!


On the law school “brain drain”

Smart post by Prof. Muller at Pepperdine.

He points out that the current data shows that the principal brain drain is at the lower end of the LSAT distribution.  For the most competitive students, including students who will be competitive at Northwestern and certain other schools, there has in fact been a slight to moderate uptick in the percentage of these students applying to law school.

None of this contradicts the central fact that law school applications are down nationwide, but it does illustrate the utility of more fine-grained data as we consider these matters.


Law dean appointed to criminal justice role

At the instigation of Northwestern’s Locke Bowman and the MacArthur Justice Center.