Is a Social Justice Law School Experience Possible?

By Traci Yoder, NLG Director of Education & Research

“The first thing I lost in law school was the reason that I came.” –Anonymous law student

This quote comes from an essay by Loyola law professor and former National Lawyers Guild President William Quigley in which he describes the difficulties that social justice-oriented students experience when they begin their legal education.Many law students can recognize this dilemma: They come to law school with the intention of learning the law in order to assist marginalized groups and individuals, change current oppressive political and economic systems, and use legal strategies to advance social justice. However, very quickly they realize that the entire experience of legal education is structured to push them away from these values. The current structure of law school is much better equipped to produce corporate lawyers than attorneys who want to dedicate themselves to law in the service of the people.

The most common reason cited for this is economic. The average law student graduates with around $140,000 in debt, and law school tuition continues to increase due to the U.S. News rankings-driven “arms race.”z  In a declining job market, the threat of massive debt is enough to keep many students from pursuing public interest work. Yet rising tuition and debt are not the only factors. In most universities, the culture and pedagogy of legal education emphasize commercial law over public interest fields and the intellectual pressure of law school undermines student’s commitment to their ideals. Students often feel unsupported within the institution, and a subtle pressure to abandon the political and moral values that informed their decision to become social justice lawyers.

Less often discussed—but just as damaging—are the ways that law school environments produce intense anxiety, stress, competition, and isolation among students. Considering the high rates of substance abuse and depression in the legal field, the negative influences of law school need more attention: “Lawyers are among the most depressed and distressed professionals; the law school environment trains students to maintain lives that promote depression and anxiety…Pressures include student debt, fear of rejection, lack of feedback, emphasis put on grades, ineffectiveness of feedback regarding grades and intellectual progress in general, lack of guidance, lack of practical skills, competitive atmosphere, and isolation.” Because of these psychological pressures, many law students end up feeling overwhelmed, alienated, and incapable of maintaining their original plans.

In order to combat these trends, the National Lawyers Guild has created the Radical Law Student Project, a student-led initiative to ensure that law students are able to maintain their ideals despite the many pressures of law school. The idea for this project emerged at the 2012 NLG National Convention in Pasadena, when the Guild’s Student Caucus decided to make it an organizational priority to challenge the status quo of legal education. The result is the Radical Law Student Manual, a series of articles exploring these issues and offering practical resources for students and faculty.

In the Radical Law Student Manual, members of NLG law school chapters drew on their own expertise and experiences to offer timely analyses and real-life case studies in which students and faculty organized to change specific aspects of law school. For example, law students at UC Davis School of Law wrote a chapter about the reasons why law school tuition has been escalating since the mid-1980s. They also shared their experiences organizing on their campus to push back against another round of tuition increases proposed by the administration, including practical step-by-step instructions and advice for students at other institutions who want to initiate similar campaigns.

The intention of this project is to offer ways to both cope with the stressful and hierarchical nature of law school as well as to change as many of its deleterious aspects as possible. A radical legal education can help to produce more people’s lawyers, which is the first step to reshaping the legal profession along the lines of social justice. ■

This article originally appeared at the Law at the Margins blog.