Social Justice Education at Law Schools: Imperative or Imposition?

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For many law students, social justice classes, pro-bono work, and an awareness of the needs of the disenfranchised are woven into their legal education. In fact, many law professors believe social justice is the cornerstone of the law school curriculum, not just an add-on or enhancement.  

Jane Aiken
Jane Aiken

Teaching social justice is part of the ethos of being an attorney, says Jane Aiken, associate dean for experiential education and vice dean at Georgetown University Law Center, the law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “It’s part of our ethical obligation as lawyers to try and ensure a fair and just society by the rule of law,” she says.

Lawyers operate differently from other professions or disciplines, explains Donna Lee, the dean of clinical programs at CUNY School of Law; based out of Long Island City, N.Y., the school is dedicated to social justice. “The practice of law comes with the responsibility [to be] attuned to matters of justice and access,” Lee says.

Donna Lee
Donna Lee

Aiken believes that knowledge of social justice and discrimination — and the laws put in place to ensure individuals’ rights in these areas — helps attorneys better assist all types of clients, whether they practice in a corporate or nonprofit setting.

“Attorneys operate as counselors, and if we can provide clients with a broader view of the choices they’re making, and do that in a fuller way, we’re better lawyers,” Aiken says.

At Georgetown’s law school, she says that social justice is taught in a way that emphasizes both a hands-on and analytical component.

“We ask students to not only do the work,” she says, “but to [also] step away and look at what structural problems have caused our clients to live the way they’re living and determine what they can do about it.”

In fact, experiential learning, which often emphasizes social justice issues, is on the rise. According to Aiken, the American Bar Association (ABA) is now requiring that students at all ABA-accredited law schools take six credit hours of experiential learning courses beginning in fall 2016.

Moreover, law schools are also developing courses that respond to current events. For example, after Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore last year, the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law developed a class called “Baltimore: Past, Present, and Moving Forward” that focuses on community policing and social activism.

At CUNY School of Law, social justice underscores the institution’s educational mission. The basis for the school’s founding, Lee says, was to “effect social change to make our society more just.” She says it is dedicated to providing service to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to legal representation.

CUNY students are able to specialize in any area of law, but they are provided many opportunities during their studies to engage in public interest work.

“[They have opportunities to practice] in underserved communities, handle unpopular issues such as poverty and discrimination, and represent Muslim communities that are being policed or parents at risk of their children being taken away by immigration officials,” says Julie Goldscheid, dean of academic affairs at the school.

Julie Goldscheid
Julie Goldscheid

She says that social justice issues aren’t taught as just one-off courses, but rather are woven into many courses, including Law and Family Relations, Sexuality and Law, Race and Law, Poverty Law, and Gender and Law. “Faculty members raise issues of inequality and access [in numerous courses],” Goldscheid says.

“We have robust discussions on what it means to be a social justice lawyer,” she adds. “Many of our students have different views; one thing we hope to [do] is help our students figure out what that means.”

The current class at CUNY School of Law consists of 194 full-time and 41 part-time students. Of those who are full time, 64 percent are women, and 45 percent are minorities (15 percent are Latino, 10 percent African American, 2 percent Asian, 5 percent biracial, and 6 percent international). Of all the students in the law school’s 2015 graduating class, 35 percent went on to pursue public interest law, 33 percent governmental work, 16 percent private practice, 8 percent business, and the remainder accepted judicial or academic positions.

Moreover, the school keeps its costs down to appeal more to working-class and minority students. In 2015-2016, tuition was just $14,100 for in-state students, enabling 15 percent of students to graduate debt free, with the remainder carrying an average debt load of only $60,000 (including living expenses) compared with the national average of $84,000.

But not everyone is enamored with making social justice a mandatory part of the law school curriculum. In a paper she wrote for the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality, titled “The Imposition of Social Justice Morality in Legal Education,” Julie Lawton, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago, argued that “law students should not be required to adhere to the social justice morality of law faculty and law school administrators.” She believes that by teaching social justice, law schools are imposing their personal values on students.

Julie Lawton
Julie Lawton

Law schools have an obligation to expose students to civil rights issues, Lawton says, particularly in areas of experiential learning. However, when it comes to social justice issues, she believes schools should limit their role to offering encouragement, without specifically dictating what students should do or believe.

“Whether [or not] to engage in social justice is an individual [choice],” says Lawton, “and everyone has to come to that decision on their own, as an adult.”

Indeed, in her article, Lawton notes that social justice is so ingrained in legal education that “currently, 40 law schools require either pro-bono or public service [work] as a condition of graduation.” And, she notes, some states are taking that even further.

“One state, New York, requires pro-bono work as a condition of admittance to the bar, and California, Montana, and New Jersey are considering that requirement,” she wrote.

Lawton would like to see law schools place more emphasis on diversifying their clinical legal offerings, including work in business and policy — beyond public interest law.

Aiken, however, maintains that law schools should be teaching social justice in all of its guises. “Name me a time when someone isn’t imposing their morality.” she says.  “We all see the world through our experience and what we value. People make choices in law about what they teach and what they’re going to emphasize.”

“If we’re not teaching social justice, what’s the alternative?” Aiken adds. “You need agency to be able to evaluate what’s being asked and an ability to make yourself an actor instead of [being] acted upon.”●

Gary M. Stern is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. CUNY School of Law is a 2013, 2014, and 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.