Bright students pay on average $43,020 dollars annually to become the world-changing attorneys they see in the news—those creating stay-at-home orders to halt the spread of COVID-19 or calling for the end of the qualified immunity doctrine to reduce police brutality against communities of color. To get into law school, these students write long essays about their desire to make reform the laws and make America a better place.
If their experience is anything like mine, they will be disappointed upon arrival at law school. The curriculum, like the law, is laser-focused on precedent: the cases that have been previously decided. The precedent represents the rule by which the current case can be decided.
University of Michigan Law Professor Sherman Clark counsels that a good lawyer gets results for their client by applying the old precedent to the new facts. But a great lawyer finds a way to get the judge to get to a better result based on the underlying intent of the original rule and precedent.
The application of past precedent without consideration of the changing world is sadly routine within the legal system (see qualified immunity, for example). This state of affairs seems to apply to law school administrators as well.
I recently learned this lesson again as students of color at my law school asked the administration to publicly acknowledge #BlackLivesMatter and make changes within our own campus to improve the environment for students of color.
When students asked for a response, the administration referred repeatedly to outdated policies and procedures. These policies included staying silent about off-campus issues and sending complaints to a committee that has repeatedly failed to make any sort of change. Like good lawyers, the administrators cited how they had handled these cases before.
This precedent—sending student complaints to committees without any clear mandate, staying silent about issues off-campus, encouraging students to resolve their complaints quietly—is no longer enough for those who see law school as a place to develop the skills to unravel and rebuild a legal system that doesn’t work for us, our families, or our communities.
We didn’t want to be told to follow a precedent that would not work for us. We wanted more.
Finding no solution within the system, my fellow students and I publicly demanded change. In the past, students have been called in for questioning by administrators when they’ve spoken out publicly. We knew that we might be penalized for speaking out or lose opportunities to a silent, complicit peer. The cost of our silence, however, for students like me, a Vietnamese-American, first-generation college graduate, did not outweigh the benefit—the chance of acceptance in an institution that makes it clear that we are not welcome.
In mere hours, students and alumni from a variety of backgrounds took to Twitter to explain how the law school had not provided them with the educational or social opportunities to become the well-rounded and well-adjusted lawyers we strive to become. Alumni and students amplified each other’s concerns (using the hashtag #MLawLoud), hoping that if a dozen people asked the school to offer critical race curriculum, for example, they might take it more seriously than they would a single person who could be told that asking was a risk for their future. With 12 people making a request, we might be able to move the institution to consider whether the old precedent was actually satisfactory to resolve the issues at hand, rather than to address a single person’s complaint. With support from the community we created, we were able to ask that justice be served, even if it required innovative new solutions.
At my school, it took dozens of students elevating each other’s voices and alumni’s threat to withhold thousands of dollars in donations before the school considered breaking the precedent. It took each of us sharing heartbreaking personal narratives, demanding the public and the administration look into our wounds directly for administrators to be great lawyers who could understand the purpose of the old precedent (to help foster a diverse and inclusive educational environment) and create new methods of achieving that purpose, including saying publicly that Black Lives Matter and sharing the Black Law Student Association’s demands with students and alumni to drive accountability.
To create the revolutionary lawyers the world needs now, schools must start by creating the environment within law schools for students to call for reform. To create lawyers who are willing to take the risks necessary to make change in the future, institutions must reconsider their own norms – even when it goes against what they’ve done in the past.