October 23, 2009
By Ken Krayeske • 12:00 AM EST
Chase Hall, Room 210, UConn Law School campus, Hartford, Connecticut, emptied out after class, 9:25 p.m., but sometimes it feels like classes are empty even when in session.
The Class of 2010 at the University of Connecticut School of Law graduates 212 days from today, Friday, October 23, 2009. But who's counting?
Me. At the end of this semester, I will have to complete only seven credits to obtain the 86 required to earn my juris doctor. I am done with it.
Everyone says fear the bar exam, but actually, I look forward to it.
More frighteningly, I fear the future of the legal profession. My fears don't come from the collapsing economy that has shuttered the doors on many a law firm. Nor do my fears mimic those of the dozens of studies and articles written about how law school fails to prepare lawyers for the legal practice and the disconnect between the court room and the classroom.
The grim picture that I see for the law is based on my observations from attending classrooms in two different law schools, one private, Quinnipiac University, and one public, UConn.
The history of American law has never thrilled me, given the fact that our best and brightest judges (who are usually lawyers) decided in favor of slavery in Dred Scott, segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson and judicial control over elections in Bush v. Gore.
And some scholars, like civil rights expert Prof. Derek Bell, who gets short shrift in the legal classroom, even maintain that the supposed high points of American jurisprudence, like Brown v. Board of Education, can be read as a further defense of property over people. After all, Brown gave us the reform doctrine of "with all deliberate speed."
Prof. Bell further maintains that the U.S. Constitution contains no less than a dozen provisions designed to protect the institution of slavery.While I hoped to learn some of this in a required Constitutional Law class, I didn't.
Mind you, my constitutional law professor at Quinnipiac is one of the state's more respected civil libertarians, and in his defense, there is a vast body of constitutional law that needs to be taught, and only so much time.
So I had to seek it out, like taking a class of the American Legal History of Race Relations, taught by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barry Stevens at Quinnipiac. Where the required Constitutional Law class has 70 students or so, Judge Stevens had seven students, some of whom spent the evening
classes instant messaging their friends on facebook.
You can't teach consciousness, but you can ban laptops. Even so, it seems that the current educational regime, though, elevates the study of core capitalist legal doctrine above human rights. Property and criminal law are required classes, yet Stevens' class isn't or an analogous human rights law class isn't.
Considering that the fundamental issue in the criminal justice system is race, one would think we want law schools to teach about the impact of race on law. Nope.
It's not like the offensive slavery provisions have been written out of the Constitution, and it’s not like current legal texts don’t teach cases about slavery, despite the abolition of slavery almost 150 years ago.
Slavery merited mentions in casebooks for property law and conflicts of law (the study of which state's law to apply when various states have an interest in the outcome and their laws conflict).
Perhaps the reason that could be because so much of the case law that we must read is because the only people in North Carolina in 1850 who could pay for legal services were those with money and slaves.
Thus the propositions of law that seemed most logical arose from people owning people, and of course, the law most favorable to this monied class is that which won, and that which we must read and continue to abide by.
Yet my classroom experiences make me think that we will continue to produce lawyers who will place property over people, who will argue and rule in favor of corporations and capital rights over human rights.
When topics like slavery come up in class, hardly a hand is ever raised to question the inclusion of such injustices. The docility of my fellow law students may be a bigger problem than teaching of bad law.
This may surprise some people, but I love to participate in class. The academic environment provides a relatively safe chance to think on your feet; to practice verbal responses to difficult intellectual material in front of a group of people.
If I am wrong, no punishment or pain awaits other than minor embarrassment, which doesn't bother me because at least I tried.
Plus, all of us law students pay handsomely to attend. By my calculation, I have spent $35,000 in cash on tuition, books and expenses, and $50,000 in loans – and I am on the very low side for loans. Part of the value I receive is the insights of my peers.
Thus when a professor poses an open question to the class, I will often volunteer an answer. However, during the past seven semesters, I have noticed that in every class, no matter the school, only three or four people consistently volunteer like me.
Professors can eliminate this problem by going through a seating chart and calling on people in order, and most professors do spread out the responsibilities for class discussion. The reward is that classmates often provide insight into the law that would not have occurred to me, and sometimes did not cross the professor's mind, either.
To quote a phrase, a classroom is a laboratory of democracy when all participate and share ideas. It is an important part of the experience to feed off of the contributions of classmates, who may be future law partners or adversaries.
Perhaps others don't see it as I do, but I hope when they write out loan checks for 20 years on $200,000 in debt, they don’t have buyer's remorse. I will stop short of trying to divine the intentions of my classmates as to why they don't participate. When people don't prepare for class, it frustrates my preparation and group learning.
For example, the other day in class, the professor posed an open question.Having just responded to a different query moments prior, I sat out this one. While I never hesitate to take an opportunity to challenge students and their perceptions of the law, I try to avoid dominating the discussion.
Silence greeted the professor. No one raised a hand. The professor waited out the two minutes (or infinity) of awkward quiet. I wondered how my classmates will mature into zealous advocates for clients if they are not ready to answer, or just afraid.
I wonder how my classmates will ever stand up for clients' rights, or forwhat is right, if they are so meek as to fear speaking in a classroom. Talking is high on a lawyer's job description.
Yet thinking back to teaching high school students and being in college myself, the same problem plagued the academic environment at those levels, too.
This lack of participation is endemic not just in the ivory tower, but in civic life as well. Law school is where academics meet civics head on. If our future lawyers don't participate in class, are they creating an environment where they opt out of participating in society?
It seems not. While I may graduate out of this law school part of the problem in 212 days, it will continue to plague us. Law schools need to bemore active in finding solutions to this, and finding ways to stress thinking that helps us evolve, and to reward participation.