In one of the most remarkably absurd non-sequiturs that ever emitted from the mouth of a law school dean, AALS president Kellye Testy explained that the law school crisis was over because law schools could enable students to pursue social justice. But the ridiculousness of Testy’s response doesn’t stand alone, and is part of the new package that law school is selling to young people who aren’t put off by non-sequiturs. Or lack of fully formed thought. Or, well, thought at all.
Apparently, social justice is the new snake oil, and law schools are the new snake oil marketeers.
Many, if not most, law schools proclaim that they will advance “social justice.” My own law school recently pledged to use part of the generous 100 million dollar gift from the Pritzkers to do just that. Generally the pursuit of such justice is done through clinics, which represent clients, but have larger objectives in their choice of representation, such as ending the death penalty, protecting rent control, or increasing environmental regulation.
Beyond this abstract tension, the pursuit of a particular vision of justice can make it harder for research faculty to pursue opposing viewpoints. Some years back, Northwestern Law School’s criminal law clinic crusaded successfully for a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. This effort became part of the school’s identity. In that atmosphere few professors would have had the temerity to start writing in favor the death penalty.
If a law school is going to market itself as the cool place of social justice, thus taking sides in political issues by shooting for the hearts, if not minds, of potential debtors, it then becomes critical to identify what exactly social justice means, and how one distinguishes between two sides, both with valid contentions, when trying to upsell students who cannot, as yet, grasp that there are meritorious arguments that are contrary to their feelz.
The second problem is that there is disagreement about the nature of social justice, but law schools tend to define it from one perspective–that of the left. Indeed, the term social justice might be regarded itself as ideologically loaded. Libertarians, for instance, might think that justice is always individual justice. But, in any event, one can disagree about the justice of the death penalty or rent control. Few, if any clinics however, are devoted to defending the death penalty or representing the families of homicide victims or deregulating the economy. The one-sided nature of social justice pursued also has an adverse effect on the intellectual atmosphere. The research faculty at the typical law school leans decidedly left to begin with, but the largely uniform left inflection of social justice clinics makes for an even more insular ideological climate.
When I asked how law students could distinguish between the merits of the prosecution and defense of criminal cases, for the purpose of establishing which side constituted “social justice,” a law student decided to explain it to me. It was, sadly, gibberish.
- UW Law has a history of student-led progress for racial equality. In 2013, student opposition extinguished plans for a proposed prosecution clinic at the school. In 2014, Critical Race Theory was finally added to the curriculum in response to student action. Although movements like these are important and admirable, they leave all of the work to already over-worked students and are radically insufficient. The institution is in need of a cultural shift.
Ironically, the University of Washington School of Law happens to be where Kellye Testy gets her paycheck, so her rhetoric aside, her efforts to turn the school into a social justice paradise are “radically insufficient.” It’s unclear what makes the insufficiency “radical,” but who doesn’t appreciate the word “radical” for emphasis?
And yet, I received an answer to my question. Through student opposition, they “extinguished plans for a proposed prosecution clinic,” and this was an “admirable” success in furtherance of the cause of social justice. This was quite surprising, and in stark contrast to what the student subsequently twitted.
It’s not that criminal defense lawyers have any particular sympathy for the prosecutorial function, but we are members of society like everyone else, and every thinking person ought to be capable of appreciating that both functions, prosecution and defense, are necessary. Every person deserves a defense, and the protection of their constitutional rights.
But there are bad dudes out there, harming people, who need to be prosecuted and punished. Nobody is more aware of this than criminal defense lawyers, because we spend a lot more time with bad dudes than anyone else. Anyone who doesn’t comprehend the yin and yang of crime is, well, stupid. Anyone who believes one side sits at the right hand of the social justice god is “radically” stupid. And what that person cannot be is a lawyer.
I get it, that law schools have mouths to feed, seats to fill, conferences in need of panelists whose airplane tickets and hotel rooms must be paid for. There are scholars writing scholarish stuff, and that doesn’t come cheap. But what happened to law schools teaching, you know, law?
Marketing a legal education as a short path to “social justice,” two words that remain as mysterious to me now as before, may be the way to keep the law relevant to those who might otherwise have no clue what to do with their gender studies degree, but once they’ve signed the back of the matchbook and committed to taking out $200,000 in loans, you pretty much have them hooked. And once they’re hooked, you’ve covered your nut.
Then, teach them the merits of all perspectives. Hard as this is for me to say, a society without prosecutors is going to be very damned unpleasant. There is no side that owns “social justice,” but only a legal system where all advocates do their respective jobs with competence and integrity. It’s not a strong selling point, perhaps, but it’s what law schools exist to do. If you can’t produce students who grasp the virtue of prosecutors as well as defense lawyers, under some misguided notion of social justice, then we’re doomed.