Learning From Our Students: Pt. 2 – Passion, Context, Legal Education

Lesson 2:  Passion, Context and Legal Education

In recent years it’s become commonplace to talk about the importance of encouraging our students to find and pursue their passion.  The Jens’ Three Degrees Project is an amazing example of what passion, accompanied by vision, collaboration, smarts and hard work, can produce.  So it was sobering to hear about the negative effect of the 1L year on a Jen’s belief that law school could help her pursue climate justice.

After the Jens’ presentation, I had a lovely conversation with Jeni Barcelos. Our focus turned to legal education.  Jeni shared that after her first year in law school she was saying “I’m not sure I can do this.”  The de-contextualized appellate focus of the 1L year had communicated such a monolithic message that being a lawyer means being a litigator that she was demoralized about the value of law school for pursuing her passion, climate justice.  Jeni was fortunate to have already reached out to Prof. Bill Rogers, environmental law scholar par excellence, at our law school.  And, fortunately for all of us, he convinced her otherwise.

Lest you think that Jeni’s post-1L understanding of what it means to be a lawyer was unique, just this quarter I encountered two students with similar stories.  On the first day of class in my Unemployment Compensation Clinic and in my Access to Justice course, my students said a few words about their backgrounds and goals.  In each class one student said something like “I’m not planning to be a lawyer, I want to do policy work.”

In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t think that my law school is unusually court-centric.  (Although it has occurred to me that our recent very successful efforts to promote judicial clerkships to students may have unintentionally and unexpectedly reinforced the litigation-oriented view of lawyering.)

Jeni’s prescription for how law schools can avoid this “beat the passion out of them” phenomenon:  situate those appellate cases in context and provide opportunities to talk about the larger issues, including non-litigation strategies.

So I come back to two themes that have long held my attention and that are incorporated into the Best Practices methodology:  passion and context.  See BP, p. 141 (context) and BP, pp. 113-114, 121-122 (factors affecting passion).

Yes, we need to teach the traditional skills of analysis that underlie the first year.  Yes, students need to learn a considerable amount of information & doctrine in order to exercise those skills.  And, we need to find new ways of achieving those goals more efficiently, so we can support our students’ passions by providing the context they need in order to care about that information.

2 Responses

  1. I am becoming increasingly convinced that one of the keys to keeping students connected to their passion is to have experiences of contacts with clients in the first year of law school in the context of classes (not just as “extra curricular activity”). I saw the power of this especially this past semester when, in our first-year legal writing section that is based in Family Law, the students were working on a second parent adoption brief. I brought in the second parent of a little girl I had represented as a GAL in an adoption proceeding a few months earlier. She met with the students, talked with them about the journey she and her partner had gone through to have their daughter and have the law recognize her as the daughter of both of them. It was a powerful 50 minutes. When the students later had their mock appellate arguments, they were some of the best I had seen in years. I am convinced that, in part, that quality of engaged learning came from being able to put a “face” on the problem. Whether litigation or policy or transactional becomes irrelevant, when the students can see that lawyers serve people.

  2. I plan to talk about similar concerns on The Doug Noll Show on Dec. 16, 2010 at 7 p.m. Pacific Time. My program is called: Dispute Resolution in the Law School Curriculum: Are We Training the “New Lawyer?” Feel free to call in with comments or questions at 877-474-3302.

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