Recalibrating the Mission to Pursue Access to Justice

Raymond H. Brescia’s recent article (When Interests Converge: An Access-to-Justice Mission for Law Schools, 24 Geo. J. on Poverty L. & Pol’y 205 (2017)) identifies opportunity within a trio of connected challenges:  declining law school enrollments, decreased job prospects for graduates, and the ever-present legal services gap. Building upon Derrick Bell’s “Interest-Convergence Theory,” Professor Brescia posits that law schools should revise their missions to explicitly address the goal of enhancing access to justice, saying:

This interest convergence represents an opportunity for law schools to embrace social change that expands access to justice and restores the role of the legal profession in promoting democratic values, democratic institutions, social equality, and the rule of law.

Whether we regularly graduate a glut of new lawyers (as in the late 1980s/early 1990s) or see dramatic decreases in those numbers, millions of people still go without legal advice on their rights or representation in lawsuits. We need lawyers, and there is plenty of work. I agree that some might be more interested in pursing a law degree if they saw a clearer path toward contributing to access to justice. Schools with this mission would need to consider how to graduate new lawyers with a combination of legal knowledge/skills, a reasonable debt load, and a realistic business model – one that allows them to provide legal representation to individuals with average and lower incomes. If calibrated correctly, this re-envisioned mission might not only attract law school applicants, but also could redirect legal education in ways that improve the profession and address the ongoing need for lawyers.

What might be most striking about this proposal is how it could address more than than the sustainability of law schools, the employment of law grads, or the continuing lack of legal representation for ordinary individuals. Most of us care about all of the above. But the role of legal education and lawyers in supporting democracy and rule of law is on my mind a lot these days. Law schools that focus their missions more intently upon access to justice explicitly advance the values underpinning democracy itself, as Brescia notes in his article. David Leonhardt has written about present risks to democracy and the rule of law. Others view recent events as re-establishing the rule of law over a runaway administrative state. No matter how you see it, educating lawyers about their role in promoting an enduring democracy is a critical mission. As Steven Harper said, “The stakes are high and have nothing to do with politics or party loyalty.”

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