Radical Law Student Project


From Traci Yoder, Editor: It has become a truism that many are drawn to law school initially to further social justice, only to end up working in areas of the law that have little potential to serve these ideals. The most common reason cited for this is economic: the average law student emerges into practice with well over $100,000 in debt. However, this is not the only factor. In most universities, the culture and pedagogy of legal education tend to emphasize commercial law over public interest fields and the intellectual pressure of law school undermines student’s commitment to their ideals. Very often students feel very little support within the institution, and a subtle pressure to abandon the political and moral values that informed their decision to pursue law in the service of the people.

In order to combat these trends, the National Lawyers Guild has initiated the Radical Law Student Project, which includes a collaborative Radical Law Student Manual (RLSM) outlining organizing campaigns undertaken by NLG students as well as a growing faculty network of NLG scholars. The RLSM builds on the NLG Disorientation Manual, by presenting an extended analysis of contemporary legal education as well as concrete strategies to change the culture of law school using examples from other students who have successfully fought for improvements in their institutions. Topics covered include the dominant legal career narrative, the psychological effects of law school, teaching and grading practices, barriers to legal education, tuition increases, law student debt, radical faculty and curriculum, contemplation and the law, starting and reviving NLG chapters, and advice for life as a new lawyer.

Changing the practices, pedagogy, and expectations of law school in order to transform the culture of legal education will not be an easy process. Remember that you are not alone! The NLG offers a nationwide community of lawyers, law students, legal workers, and scholars who can assist you in changing the conditions at your law school. Our experience comes directly from the research and organizing of other NLG law students and faculty, who can support your efforts to make similar changes at your law school.

To learn more about the NLG’s legal education initiatives, please email NLG Student Organizer Traci Yoder at traci@nlg.org.

NLG Radical Law Student Manual

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword by Prof. Marjorie Cohn, NLG Past President
  2. Introduction by Traci Yoder, Editor
  3. Understanding the Law School Tuition Crisis by A.J. Cisneros, UC Davis NLG
  4. Challenging the Tuition Crisis by A.J. Cisneros, UC Davis NLG
  5. Confronting Law Student Debtby Liberty Straney (NLG-Portland), Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin (Gonzaga NLG), and Mariah Thompson (University of Virginia NLG)
  6. Resisting the Psychological Effects of Law School by Will Pasley, UC Hastings NLG
  7. How to Start (or Revive) a NLG Chapter at Your School by Whitney Leeds, University of Colorado NLG /National Student Vice President (2013-14)
  8. Mindfulness and the Law by Jean Stevens, CUNY NLG/NLG National Student Vice President (2012-13)
  9. Engaging in Anti-Oppression Work by The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) and Anti-Racism Committee
  10. Changing Legal Pedagogy by Will Pasley, UC Hastings NLG and Traci Yoder, NLG Director of Research and Education
  11. Radicalizing Curriculum by Erin Duncan (Lewis and Clark NLG), Austin Smith (University of Virginia NLG), and Hannah Adams and Sharlyn Grace (Northeastern NLG)
  12. After Law School: Advice from NLG Next Gen by Tim Phillips, NLG Next Gen Committee
  13. How To Pay the Bills Without Selling Your Soul by Lynne Williams, Golden Gate Law NLG Graduate, former NLG Executive Vice President and Northeast Regional Vice President
  14. Additional Resource: Information Request Guide for Challenging Rising Tuition


The NLG National Office would like to thank all the students, faculty, and NLG members who contributed to this project as researchers, writers, editors, organizers, designers, and supporters! The Radical Law Student Manual has been a truly collaborative project engaging Guild members across the country and we hope you find it a useful resource for inspiring change at your law school. Special thanks to NLG Communications Coordinator Tasha Moro!

Contributors: Jessica Arena, Emily Camin, Abenicio Cisneros, James Clark, Randall Cohn, Megan Davis, Pawanpreet K. Dhaliwal, April Donahower, Erin Duncan, Deanna Glickman, Sharlyn Grace, Karen Hoffmann, Michelle Jalowski, Sam Lednicky, Whitney Leeds, Denise Martineau, Michel Martinez, Dustin McDaniel, Bacilio Mendez II, Jeremiah Meyer-O’Day, Emily Crystal Nelson, Vikki Otero, Allyson Page, Will Pasley, Tim Phillips, Jenna Pollock, Serena Salinas, Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, Helene Sivak, Austin Smith, Jean Stevens, Liberty Straney, Mariah Thompson, Jonathan Vogel, Claire White, and Lynne Williams.

Faculty Reviewers: Judith Berkan, Len Cavise, Marjorie Cohn, Charles DiMare, Susan DeJarnett, Lee Goldstein, Paul Harris, Vanessa Merton, Colin Starger, Theresa Wright, and Ellen Yaroshefsky.
Artwork: Cassady Davidson, Southwestern University Law School NLG

By Marjorie Cohn

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Many politically progressive students arrive at law school expecting to work hard, learn the law, pass the bar exam, and pursue a career in which they can use their legal skills to further social justice. But, like first-year law student James Hart in the 1973 film The Paper Chase, many find themselves terrorized, intimidated, and overwhelmed. They encounter the Socratic Method, a culture of alienation, competition, and exorbitant debt. Students asked to recite cases are put through their paces as the rest of the class sits silent. School rankings by U.S. News and World Report often lead to an emphasis on faculty scholarship at the expense of effective teaching. Many students feel pressure to abandon or postpone their public interest goals in the interest of making money to pay their student debts.

In the nearly quarter of a century I have been teaching law, many of my own students have approached me with similar concerns. They often wonder how they can integrate their developing skills with their commitment to struggle for justice in the context of law school. I encourage them to raise issues of racism, sexism and homophobia in their classes and with fellow students. I also advise them to pursue internships and mentoring relationships with Guild lawyers in the community. In my criminal procedure class, we deal with issues of police misconduct and racism. In my international human rights course, we discuss human rights, U.S. foreign policy, and the frequent contradiction between the two. Many students have been re-inspired by joining the National Lawyers Guild chapter at our school, where they work with like-minded progressives to use the law as a vehicle for social change. A favorite student activity is serving as legal observers at local demonstrations.

This project provides tools to challenge and even overcome many of the obstacles law students face. It is a product of the collective work of many Guild law students around the country and the NLG law student organizer. The manual details the struggle at University of California Davis School of Law – “King Hall” (named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) to tackle the tuition crisis, and outlines programs for debt forgiveness. It provides strategies for working with faculty to transform legal pedagogy and radicalize law school curriculum, with courses on critical race theory, feminist legal theory, queer theory, and critical perspectives on various areas of law. Methods of increasing diversity, and anti-oppression trainings – much like those we have at the national NLG convention each year – are explained. We have successfully used these trainings at my own school. The manual includes programs for mindfulness and meditation to overcome the isolation, alienation, and depression many suffer during their tenure in law school. It also has tips for finding meaningful work in a difficult economic climate. And it contains strategies for revitalizing or forming new law school NLG chapters.

The Guild provides a supportive network for law students who wish to use the law to effect social change. The NLG Radical Law Student Project is a valuable tool to help students survive and thrive in law school, and go on to pursue social justice careers. The quality of the contributions is a testament to the proud 77-year history of the National Lawyers Guild, “in the service of the people, to the end that human rights are more sacred than property interests.” Law students are some of the most dedicated members of the NLG. This invaluable resource belongs in the hands of every Guild law student.

Professor Marjorie Cohn,

Past NLG President

By Traci Yoder, Editor

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“The first thing I lost in law school was the reason that I came.” –Unnamed Law Student, as told to Bill Quigley in “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice.”[i]

Many people come to law school because they believe a legal education will provide the tools to assist social movements as well as oppressed and marginalized individuals. Those coming from an activist background often hope that a law degree will offer them the opportunity to use the law for progressive social change. However, as the foreword and the quote above indicate, the actual experience of being in law school can quickly discourage a critical social justice perspective. From day one, law students are praised for their admission into the educated elite and encouraged to use this status for personal gain. This reassurance—combined with the high cost of tuition, competitive atmosphere, amount of work, and intimidating pedagogical methods—produces a situation in which many students find it difficult to maintain their ideals over the course of the three years of law school.

The Radical Law Student Project (RLSP) is designed as a tool to change law school culture from the inside out. We start from the assumption that the current practices of legal education can be challenged and improved through the organization and determination of students and their allies. We identify the structures and unspoken assumptions that maintain the elite and conservative nature of law schools, and by extension, of the law itself. The belief that legal education can and must change is a radical assertion. The overall effect of being in law school is to isolate students from their values and from each other and to reframe social, ethical, and political issues in the dry and obtuse language of the law. We challenge this version of law school and offer analyses and tools to create a new kind of legal education—one that will teach how law can be used for the benefit of people over property.

This project was created for social justice activists who have already decided that they plan to attend law school or are currently enrolled in a program. Whether you are interested in a career that requires a law degree, want to have more resources available to you in your social justice work, or are simply tired of interacting with lawyers who are arrogant and thoughtless, there are many reasons why activists decide to get a legal education. However, law school is not a pleasant or inspiring experience for most people. Our intention 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 will produce radically different kinds of lawyers, which will reshape the legal profession.

This project is a collective endeavor which brought together NLG members across the country to research, write, edit, and design the articles we will be sharing. NLG law students drew on their own expertise and experiences to offer real-life case studies in which students and faculty organized to change specific aspects of law school. NLG student members: organize yourselves to work on improving the conditions of your law school!

Law School for Social Justice Activists

There are numerous problems with the current law school model, including escalating tuition, lack of legal jobs for the number of graduates, questionable funding practices, and inaccurate reporting of LSAT scores and employment statistics by many law school administrators.[ii] Legal reform scholars, recent law graduates, and the popular media agree that law schools leave graduates unprepared to practice law, requiring them to work first as if an apprentice. Literature critical of current legal education points to the tendency for law schools to encourage instrumentalist thinking, an emphasis on authority and analysis, and politically conservative thinking.[iii] However, less attention has been given to what is considered “normal” about law schools: the intensely competitive environment, the rigid and noncritical curriculum, unclear and stress-inducing teaching and grading practices, and high rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Given these problems with law schools and legal education as currently practiced, you might be wondering if a social justice activist should even attempt to join the legal profession as an attorney. For those who are still trying to decide if law school is the right step for them, we suggest A Handbook for Social Justice Activists Thinking about Law School by Nikki Demetria Thanos, For Those Considering Law School by Dean Spade, and Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice by Bill Quigley. These attorneys offer sobering advice for aspiring law students, including the limitations of the law to produce social change as well as the emotional and financial toll of a legal education.

How to Use This Manual

The RLSP builds on the NLG Disorientation Manual, which the Guild publishes each year and distributes to law schools. TheDisO offers a history of the NLG, tips for starting a student chapter, and short essays on topics such as community lawyering, legal indoctrination, alternative forms of law practice, and creating a public interest career. This project goes further by presenting an extended analysis of contemporary legal education as well as concrete strategies to change the culture of law school using examples from other students who have successfully fought for improvements in their institutions.

The RLSP approaches the goal of transforming legal education through a number of practical interventions. The sections in the manual address particular problems of law school and offer strategies, alternatives, and case studies to help you implement changes at your school. Topics covered include the dominant legal career narrative, the psychological effects of law school, teaching and grading practices, barriers to legal education, tuition increases, law student debt, radical faculty and curriculum, contemplation and the law, starting and reviving NLG chapters, and advice for life as a new lawyer. Whenever possible, we have included concrete suggestions, resources, and step by step guidelines for implementing campaigns to address these various aspects of legal education.

In Part 1—Problems with Law School—we analyze the current state of legal education in order to provide a context for our proposed interventions. These sections examine class, gender, and racial barriers to a legal education, an analysis of affirmative action programs, the reasons for rapidly rising tuition, and the effects of increasingly large debt for law students. These sections also address the often unspoken aspects of law school that cause students to experience anxiety, depression, high rates of substance abuse, and difficulty maintaining a life outside of school. These include unclear pedagogical and grading methods, an extremely competitive atmosphere, and the pressure of certain debt in a poor job market.

Part 2—Alternatives—suggests multiple ways that law students can contest current law school practices as well as create new forms of community and education while in law school. Sections include information on challenging tuition hikes, changing teaching and grading practices, starting critical legal studies discussion groups, introducing curriculum diversity initiatives, holding anti-oppression trainings, incorporating contemplation and meditation practices, and building and supporting NLG chapters.

The final part—After Law School—discusses the period immediately following law school, including a section on alternative career narratives and advice from recent NLG graduates on finding work and fellowships. One of the best ways to stay connected to a nationwide network of radical attorneys, legal workers, and law students is to maintain your Guild membership after graduation!

Changing the practices, pedagogy, and expectations of law school in order to transform the culture of legal education will not always be an easy process. Over 100 years of tradition will challenge many of the changes we recommend in the following articles. Remember that you are not alone! The NLG offers a nationwide community of lawyers, law students, legal workers, and scholars who can assist you in changing the conditions at your law school. The advice in this manual comes directly from the research and organizing of other NLG law students, who can support your efforts to make similar changes at your law school.

Further Resources

NLG Disorientation Manual

A Handbook for Social Justice Activists Thinking about Law School by Nikki Demetria Thanos

For Those Considering Law School by Dean Spade

Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice by Bill Quigley.

[i] William Quigley, “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice,” DePaul Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall 2007).

[ii] See for example: Ethan Bronner, “Law Schools’ Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Jobs Are Cut,” New York Times, January 30, 2013; David Segal, “Is Law School a Losing Game?” New York Times, January 8, 2011; J. Maureen Henderson, “Why Attending Law School Is The Worst Career Decision You’ll Ever Make,” Forbes, June 26, 2012; Kyle McEntee, “The Problem With Law School,” Huffington Post, December 6, 2012; and Brian Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[iii] Duncan Kennedy, “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy,” in The Politics of Law, 3rd Edition, ed. David Kairys (Basic Books, 1998).

Understanding the Law School Tuition Crisis
By A.J. Cisneros, UC Davis NLG

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Law school tuition has reached crisis levels. It has become a serious barrier to current and future students who aspire to practice social justice legal work. Students must organize and take collective action to reverse the tuition crisis. This section explores the nature of the “tuition crisis era law school” as a competitive research institution that consumes more student money each year in order to invest in US News-incentivized expenditures that have at most a tangential relationship to legal education.

The recent rise in tuition has been striking. Average public law school resident tuition in the 2011-12 year was $23,214.  Average private law school tuition was $40,634.  This is up significantly from 1985, the first year the American Bar Association (ABA) began collecting these figures. Adjusted for inflation, in 1985 resident law students at public schools on average paid $4,360 a year for tuition. Their 1985 counterparts at private schools were paying on average $16,358 (adjusted for inflation) a year for tuition.[1]

Today’s new lawyers do not—and from a public interest perspective should not—make enough money to service the staggering debt they are incurring while attending tuition crisis era law schools. Thousands of young attorneys will struggle under the financial and psychological pressures of a non-dischargeable and unserviceable debt.

Beyond the impact on attorneys, the high cost of legal education will be a significant barrier to addressing other crises plaguing the justice system, the legal profession, and thus society as a whole. Mass incarceration of people of color is administered by a profession in which people of color are woefully underrepresented.[2] A “justice gap” leaves millions without sufficient access to the legal system.[3] “Elite” positions in the legal profession already go disproportionately to the economically privileged. Meanwhile, law school tuition is creating an economic barrier that will ensure people of color, those wishing to serve communities without financial resources, and individuals without economic privilege will be increasingly absent from the legal profession. Reversing the law school tuition crisis is imperative for the well being of future radical attorneys as well as the communities and causes they serve.

The Tuition Crisis Era Law School

Tuition has skyrocketed at the School of Law at the University of California, Davis.  Between the school’s founding in 1966 and 1990, the annual cost of attending “King Hall” (named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) fluctuated, after adjusting for inflation, between only $1,600 and $4,000 a year.[4] The total cost to attend King Hall during the 2012-2013 year (not including living expenses) is $49,564 for residents and $58,815 for non-residents, making it the most expensive public law school in the nation.[5] Although the rise in tuition has been particularly spectacular at King Hall, the tuition crisis is national. Between 1985 and 2011, the average public law school resident tuition increased by over 1000%.[6] Private tuition hasn’t increased at the same rate (it was higher to start with), but the figures are similarly alarming. As noted above, had these increases merely kept pace with inflation the average resident tuition for public law school would be $4,339 while private tuition would be $16,281.[7]

The tuition crisis era law school is a very different institution than its historical counterpart, at least in terms of how much student money it requires to operate. The transformation is more striking in that while law school tuition has escalated to crisis levels, legal education has largely remained the same. As the Dean of the newly minted School of Law at UC Irvine Erwin Chemerinsky put it, “Legal education today is very similar to that which I received in the mid-1970s, and I would guess that the legal education that I received in the mid-1970s is much like those in the mid-1930s.”[8] How can the cost of legal education be so much higher than it was in 1985 when, from a Dean’s perspective, the education itself is “very similar” to that of the mid-1970s? Why does it cost so much more to educate law students? It’s a puzzle only until one recognizes that law schools do more than educate law students; law schools are also research institutions that create legal scholarship.

Law School: Research Institution or Trade School?

Law students fund law schools, but there is a longstanding conflict as to the proper mission of a law school and what students’ tuition should actually fund.  Law schools have historically been torn between two missions: to be academic research institutions that advance the “science of law” or to be trade schools to prepare attorneys to practice. That conflict persists today.[9] Legal scholars credit the invention of modern legal education to Christopher Columbus Langdell, who became Dean of Harvard Law School in 1870 and contributed several innovations that still characterize legal education today.[10] Langdell believed law was a form of natural science that needed to be learned by study of judicial opinions.[11] He instituted the Socratic Method, the competitive, debate-focused classroom forum, and he pushed for the teaching of law by academics rather than practitioners.[12] Langdell’s model was eventually codified as the unitary model of legal education when the ABA instituted accreditation standards that reflected his vision in 1922.

The “Accreditations Standards” Debate: Who Is Law School For?

Prior to being institutionalized, Langdell’s academic model didn’t go unchallenged.  By the early 20th century, many non-elite, urban, part-time law schools were minting lawyers from the working class, including America’s growing immigrant population.[13]  The ABA’s proposed accreditation standards required that schools adopt a three-year program of study, provide an adequate library, and maintain a full-time faculty. These requirements were aimed, at least in part, at abolishing urban part-time schools serving working people.[14] Racist and nativist attitudes weren’t absent from the discussion. The Dean of Wisconsin Law School charged that night law schools enrolled “a very large proportion of foreign names. Emigrants and sons of emigrants…covet the title [of attorney] as a badge of distinction. The result is a host of shrewd young men, imperfectly educated, crammed so they can pass the bar examinations, all deeply impressed with the philosophy of getting on, but viewing the Code of Ethics with uncomprehending eyes.”[15]

Opponents of the codification of the academic model argued that, in addition to potentially leaving new lawyers unprepared for practice, the model would alienate the working class and immigrants from the law and would make it more difficult for the law to become a source of upward mobility for the less privileged.[16] Given diversity figures in modern legal education, it’s difficult to argue their concerns were unfounded. Nevertheless, Langdell’s model prevailed. Student tuition dollars would be spent to support two missions: (1) to train students to become lawyers; and (2) to support legal academics who would not only instruct students, but who would research and publish as well.

The “Trickle-Down Theory” of Legal Education

The distinction between spending aimed at promoting legal research and student-based funding has been obscured by both law school administrators and law faculty. ABA accreditation standards are often discussed as a potential cause of the law school tuition crisis.  While there is evidence that minimum compliance with accreditation standards is not the primary driver of skyrocketing tuition, the ABA accreditation scandal of the mid-1990s provides insight into the spending model that is driving the tuition crisis today.

Law professors are a constituency within the law school. One that owes its existence, in its current form, to Langdell’s vision of legal education, to the ABA’s insistence on the unitary, academic model of legal education (despite its impact on minority and working class access to the law), and to student tuition dollars. Faculty are the largest single cost of operating a law school and tend to represent about 50% of law school expenditures.[17] By 1995, law faculty members controlled the ABA accreditation process and were accused of using the accreditation process to protect faculty wages, to ensure more generous fringe benefits, and to attain lighter workloads.  In response, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an anti-trust action against the ABA.[18]

The faculty-controlled accreditation requirements worked on a sort of “trickle-down theory” of legal education. While accreditation standards ostensibly should be aimed at ensuring that law schools maintain a sufficient—or minimum—educational capacity, here we see faculty-accreditors conflating resources dedicated to faculty pay and research with resources ensuring minimum educational quality. The trickle-down theory of legal education goes something like this: the better the legal research and scholarship, the more enriching the contracts, torts, and administrative law courses will be.

In a 1995 editorial titled “The Law School Cartel,” the New York Times wasn’t convinced about the trickle-down theory. “These rules have nothing to do with guaranteeing students that they are gaining professional training, and everything to do with guaranteeing faculty that they will be paid top dollar. The losers are students, who are forced to pay higher tuition.”[19] The DOJ’s complaint closely followed the ABA’s refusal to accredit Massachusetts School of Law, a law school on a low-cost model which offered tuition at 55% of the national average.[20]

The ABA denied its conduct was illegal, but nevertheless entered into a consent decree to reform the accreditation standards. After the expiration of the ten-year period covered by the consent decree, the ABA was fined for not fully complying with the requirement that faculty make up less than 50% of the accreditation team.[21] Judge Royce Lambert wrote, “…on multiple occasions the ABA had violated clear and unambiguous provisions of the Final Judgment.”[22] Law school faculty, apparently, found it difficult to abandon accreditation as a mechanism for self-protection.

While the accreditation scandal reveals the legal academy’s view that research-based spending isn’t distinct from instructional spending, compliance with minimum accreditation standards are an unlikely culprit for the current crisis.  It’s true that law professors were benefiting from the faculty-controlled accreditation requirements. But a case can be made that salary increases hadn’t been exorbitant, as salaries hadn’t dramatically outpaced inflation. Adjusted for inflation, the average law professor salary was $120,100 in 1965, while median adjusted pay was $123,100 in 1987. [23] Average teaching loads, however, had been decreasing. An average teaching load in 1961 was 15.8 credit hours annually.[24] By 1987, 12 credit hours annually was considered a “heavy” load by some professors.[25] Tuition, though, was still under control during the 1980’s. Average resident tuition at public schools in 1987 was (adjusted for inflation) $4,846 while average private school tuition (adjusted) was $18,009.[26] The average tuition at UC Davis was still only $3,332 (adjusted).[27]

Nevertheless, by the mid 1990s, the DOJ, the New York Times, and others were searching for culprits behind the nascent trend in law school tuition increases. A system of self-regulation seemed a plausible explanation. After all, by 1993, commentators were noting that salaries had increased in the previous five years, at some schools by 50% or more.[28] By 1997, the average teaching load was down to 11.71 hours (this average includes clinical professors who carried higher teaching loads), while professors at elite institutions “taught significantly fewer credit hours, on average, than did their colleagues at less prestigious schools.”[29] By 1995, when the DOJ filed its complaint, tuition at UC Davis was up to—adjusted for inflation—$13,217.[30] After accreditation reform, however, teaching loads continued to drop, law professor salaries increased in ways they hadn’t before, and tuition skyrocketed.

Minimal compliance with regulatory standards—controlled by professors or not—apparently wasn’t driving tuition increases and corresponding increases in faculty spending. Two decades later, it seems more likely that it was competition for distinction, not minimal compliance, that incentivized the spending spree—and the resulting tuition crisis—which is alienating and burdening a generation of law students.

US News Rankings and the Arms Race for Prestige

One of the biggest distinctions between the tuition crisis era law school and its historical counterpart is the influence of the U.S. News rankings. In 1990, the magazine U.S. News and World Reports began ranking law schools based on multiple criteria. By 2009, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on “Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access” noted that, according to law school officials, competition for rankings, along with more hands-on education, was the main factor driving the cost of law school.[31] The U.S. News ranking takes into account a school’s reputation amongst other law schools (the most heavily weighted factor), its reputation among the bar and bench, the selectivity of admissions, graduate job placement, bar passage rate, and various per-student expenditures.[32]

How important are the US News rankings to law school administrators? Law professor, former law dean, and legal education critic Brian Tamanaha has stated bluntly, “The rankings have law schools by the throat. No question.”[33] In 2007, the Law School Admissions Council (the group that administers the LSAT) conducted 140 in-depth interviews with administrators for a report titled, “Fear of Falling: The Effects of the U.S. News and World Report Rankings on U.S. Law Schools.” It concluded, “One general effect of the USN rankings on law schools is that it has created pressure on law school administrators to redistribute resources in ways that maximize their scores on the criteria used by USN to create the rankings, even if they are skeptical that this is a productive use of these resources.”[34]

The “peer assessment” survey is the most heavily ranked US News factor. As such, schools began making faculty decisions with the rankings in mind. Richard Matasar, former Dean of New York Law School, detailed the sort of faculty spending habits the rankings incentivize:

[The focus on rankings] leads to: reducing teaching loads to free time for scholars to write (and thereby requiring larger faculties or more adjunct hiring); hiring faculty who have interests that may be provocative, press-worthy, or attractive to university press and law review editors (and paying them premium salaries or giving them reduced teaching loads); encouraging faculty to travel (and supporting it generously); and promoting faculty to appear on television, write editorials, participate in national law reform or other social movements (with appropriate support and staff assistance).[35]

Matasar went on to note that these types of faculty expenditures have only a “tangential relationship to the core education of law students” but are “essential in the arms battle for reputation.” In the current era, where schools engage in rankings-based spending that has only a tangential relationship to core education, the trickle-down theory of legal education—under which faculty spending is always instructional in nature and beneficial to students—is less credible than ever.

The Arms Race for Prestige at King Hall

The way schools approached spending aimed at increasing their prestige in order to rise in the rankings can be seen in a 2000 press release announcing a new five-year academic plan for UC Davis Law. While rising in the US News rankings isn’t explicitly mentioned as a goal, all of the telltale signs are there. The release begins by discussing “ambitious plans” to expand, then lays out the school’s strategy for becoming “the best small public law school in the country and one of the United States’ elite law schools,” before mentioning the then-current US News ranking (#41), presumably to indicate the metric at issue.[36]

The release outlines plans that correspond with what Matasar identified: ratings-induced—rather than student-centered—faculty decisions. In the document, the UC Davis Dean notes that, “the quality and size of the faculty are the single biggest factor in the strength and reputation of any law school.” He explains that the school planned to expand the faculty by seeking out “scholars who will…contribute to [the school’s] national visibility” and are “dedicated to innovative scholarship likely to attract national attention.” The scholars would be induced to come to UC Davis by offerings including “a leave program to free faculty for one semester to pursue substantial scholarly projects, and by increasing funds for summer research stipends, travel and research assistants.” Finally, the school planned to “continue building its ties with the legal academic community by inviting more guest speakers to King Hall, holding conferences and providing more funds to support faculty travel to conferences.”[37]This release sets forth a textbook approach to a trickle-down theory of resource allocation in the US News era: a focus on faculty spending that is, as Matasar would say, only tangentially related to student education, but essential in the arms battle for reputation.

In 2000, when the UC Davis expansion-focused academic plan was released—ostensibly outlining the strategy to increase the school’s rank—the school had a 15.2:1 student-to-faculty ratio (a level of 20:1 indicates presumptive compliance with ABA standards[38]), and was ranked #41.[39] Tuition was (adjusted for inflation) $14,873, up from $3,379 (adjusted) in 1990 when the rankings began.[40] Despite the drastic increase in tuition, spending increases showed no signs of slowing. The tuition crisis was looming.

In 2007, seven years after UC Davis announced faculty expansion plans, tuition at King Hall was up to $28,130 (adjusted).[41]That year, the UC Davis Dean and his counterpart at UC Berkeley, Dean Christopher Edley, addressed the UC Regents on the topic of cuts in state support for legal education and the fact that UC law schools were falling behind competitor schools in expenditures.  Cuts in state funding to UC law schools are especially difficult to replace with student fees as the UC system maintains a 33% “return to aid” policy in which a third of all fees are redistributed as financial aid. Therefore, every $1 cut in state funds must be offset by $1.50 in tuition and fee increases.[42] Dean Edley explicitly invoked the rankings as justification to increase fees in order to keep pace with higher-ranked school’s spending habits, despite a lack of public funding.[43] UC Davis Dean Rex Perschbacher, meanwhile, argued for keeping King Hall a “truly public institution”, and decried high tuition as “an enormous barrier to the newest, neediest, and most generously-spirited California undergraduates dreaming of a legal career.” He argued that without public funding, “there is no exit from this spiral which requires professional fee increases at 7-10% annually just to keep even.”[44]

But as we saw from the UC Davis academic plan, in the US News-era “keeping even” isn’t what it used to be. “Keeping even” now meant continued participation in the arms race.  Dean Edley’s vision won out that day, and the Regents authorized continued fee increases for California’s public law schools in order to compete with “peer schools” in the US News rankings.

In 2008, a new academic plan was written for UC Davis. The UC Davis academic plan for 2009-2014, like its 2001-2006 predecessor, argued that more faculty must be hired and that more resources must be devoted to faculty research, professor travel, and the hosting of academic events at King Hall.  All of this rankings-based spending was demanded despite the knowledge that increased spending would be covered by student fees rather than public funds.  This time, however, the rankings were explicitly invoked, and an Assistant Dean was tasked with studying them.[45] By the 2012-2013 academic year, UC Davis had a 11.1:1 student-to-faculty ratio (despite adding 100 students),[46] was ranked #38,[47] and resident tuition was $49,564. Rankings-based spending caused King Hall to become the most expensive public law school in the nation and a prime example of a tuition crisis era law school.

When UC Davis law students requested a budget for review as part of an organizing effort to address the tuition crisis, the administration provided a document which reflected the trickle-down theory of law school and obscured the law school’s “other mission” as a research institution: all faculty spending—including paid sabbaticals, travel to conferences, and the like—was listed as “instructional spending.”

This pattern is being repeated everywhere. Today, it’s estimated that average pay for law professors is up to $200,000.[48]Average student-to-faculty ratio is down from an estimated 25.5:1 in 1988[49] to around 14.5:1 today.[50] In 1998, there were 12,200 law faculty members at 195 ABA approved law schools;[51] today there are 23,394 law faculty members at 202 ABA approved law schools.[52] While in 1990, 4,255 law review articles were published, in 2010 that number is estimated to have grown to 9,856.[53] One study, which uses salary numbers slightly below the average because the more prestigious schools tend not to self-report, found that an estimated 48% of tuition increases between 1998 and 2008 can be attributable to “increases in faculty size and higher salaries.”[54] As we can see, faculty numbers and pay have only increased since 2008, as has tuition, precipitously. The tuition crisis is now in full swing.

Student tuition money has poured into the faculty while both faculty and administrators have claimed that tuition increases have gone to ensure students were receiving an “elite” or “world-class” education, defined, of course, by the rankings.  But despite increased costs, students have continued applying to and attending law school. Enrollment steadily increased during the US News-era, growing from 44,104 first-year students in 1990 to a peak of 52,488 new students in the 2010-2011 academic year. That trend finally turned around in 2011, with only 48,697 students enrolling.[55] Indications suggest the downward trend will continue.[56] Nevertheless, students seem under the impression that law school makes economic sense.

Demand and BigLaw: You Too Can Be Rich!

Despite rising tuition, there was still a substantial demand for law school. It’s not hard to see why. The mean nationwide starting salary for a new J.D. from the class of 2011 is $78,653, and that’s down from $93,435 in 2009.[57] For a prospective law student, this makes high tuition and impending debt seem palatable.  After all, if the average student can make $75k+ a year, then it’s not unlikely any given student will make enough money to service their debt. Schools advertise these starting salaries to attract new applicants. In 2011, UC Davis was advertising a median salary of $92,000 for its recent grads.[58]

And jobs didn’t seem scarce either, despite all the doom and gloom talk. In the mid-2000s, nearly every law school in the top 100 advertised employment rates in the 90th percentile range, and many continued to report such numbers after the 2008 crash.[59] UC Davis reported 92% employment (with an additional 3% in graduate programs) for the class of 2010.[60] Even in 2012, four years after the economy crashed and when tuition was already incredibly high, the UC Regents justified fee increases at UC campuses based on law graduates’ ability to repay debt with their “exceptionally high earning potential.”[61]Things looked good for future lawyers.

If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Only around 2% of 2011 grads are making the median salary of $78,653. Most (52%) of law grads make between $40,000 and $65,000.[62] The average debt for the class of 2011 is $124,950 for private schools and $75,728 for public schools; those figures don’t count interest that accrues while students are still in school.[63] The standard payment on a $125,000 debt is over $1,400 and managing payments that large (after taxes, expenses, etc.) requires a salary in excess of $100,000, which only 15% of graduates nationwide obtain.[64] The current status quo is one in which the average law student is accruing debt that they cannot possibly service with the average starting salary.  This is a crisis.

The sleight of hand, the reason the median salaries are so unrepresentative of actual opportunities, is what’s called a “bi-modal salary distribution.”  Rather than a bell curve, in which most grads would be making around the median and smaller numbers would be making less and more at the margins, a “bi-modal salary distribution” has two concentrated groups. The resulting graph looks something like a two-humped camel.  A group of graduates—those working for “BigLaw” or the 250 largest firms which, by and large, cater to major corporations—make between $150,000 and $165,000.  In 2011, 14% of employed grads earned those salaries, although that number peaked at 25% of employed grads in 2009. The other large group makes between $40,000 and $65,000. About 52% of grads made those salaries in 2014, but that number was as low as 32% in 2009.  The lower peak has always had the highest concentration of law grads overall.  The rest are scattered in-between both peaks and at the margins.[65]

The bi-modal salary distribution only dates back to 2000[66] and corresponds to a growth in BigLaw hiring and BigLaw salaries. This was just in time to allow law schools to inflate their demand by advertising misleading “mean salaries” and to continue increasing tuition in order to facilitate additional US News-incentivized spending. In law firms with 250 lawyers or more, entering grads received a 129% jump in starting salary between 1994 and 2008 and increasing numbers of young attorneys joined these firms through the first decade of the 21st century.[67] The 2008 crash affected BigLaw hiring more so than other sectors. In fact, “virtually all of the direct impact of the market contraction was on the large blue chip firms.”[68]  The drop in BigLaw jobs and salaries finally caused a drop in the mean salary figures and, along with crisis-level tuition, may be a reason demand is finally dropping.

But many schools still advertise these “mean salaries” to attract students. After all, schools tied the cost of attending law school to salaries that—even at the peak of BigLaw expansion—75% of law grads would never see. Being more candid about employment prospects now would likely hurt applications, which would result in lower average LSAT scores for entering students, which would harm a school in the rankings, which administrators are trying to avoid no matter what the cost to students or society at large.

Because administrators justify self-enriching spending and tuition increases by pointing to BigLaw-inflated mean salaries, it’s worth noting the work BigLaw does. BigLaw conducts “union avoidance” campaigns to defeat workers’ attempts to organize; they help developers skirt environmental protections; they help corporate money exercise undue influence in politics; they litigate against sick and injured insurance claimants; they help companies externalize liability for toxic torts; they help enforce houselessness and the destruction of minority wealth by pressing onward with the foreclosure crisis; and more.  These jobs are prestigious, but for law students who aspire to work in the public interest or for social justice, BigLaw work is abhorrent. And yet, because of the law school tuition crisis, aspiring social justice and public interest lawyers must attend law school, but will not be able to pay for it.

The law school tuition crisis has transformed law schools in a profound sense. In a democratic society with a judicial system in which one must be a lawyer to participate, in a society that is increasingly statutory and administrative, and in a society that practices mass incarceration, the public has a legitimate and pronounced interest in access to lawyers. And yet—driven by the temptation to compete in the rankings while lavishing more spending on themselves—law administrators and faculty have shamefully redefined law schools. Now law schools are debt machines calibrated to create lawyers for the proverbial “1%”. After all, how can it be said that law schools exist to create lawyers for the people when, by and large, students going to BigLaw to represent corporations—the only major sector paying $100k+ after graduation—are the only students who can afford to repay law school tuition?

Students Must Organize!

Legal education hasn’t always been expensive, but more student money is going to fund legal scholarship than ever before. We’re not going into debt to fund our legal education; we’re going into debt to finance unprecedented amounts of legal research and competition in the US News-driven arms race.  The educational goal of a student campaign should focus on these misunderstandings and assert the true quality of “tuition crisis era” law schools: the tuition crisis-era law school is a competitive research institution, which every year increases tuition in order to compete in the US News rankings by investing more student money into faculty, research, and other forms of conspicuous consumption on a trickle-down theory of legal education.

Identifying this reality not only explains why tuition is so expensive, and reveals that substantial cuts are possible, but it properly identifies the oppositional constituencies: law school administrators and faculty together on one hand, law students on the other. Administrators and faculty conflate rankings-driven faculty spending with spending that benefits students as per their trickle-down theory of legal education. This conflation is a barrier to student organizing. Students are fearful of insisting on cuts that may endanger the quality of their education. Students need to know that their legal education would be significantly more affordable if investments in legal research were brought down to historical levels and that such reductions wouldn’t necessarily adversely impact the quality of their education.

There is another reason students must organize around this issue: austerity cuts may be on their way. Law school budgets will likely shrink with the (finally) collapsing demand.  When the cuts in spending happen, an informed, engaged, empowered, and mobilized group of students, acting in concert at a sufficient number of campuses nationally, have the best chance of ensuring that administrators don’t enact their version of austerity reforms: reforms that preserve the majority of benefits for administrators and faculty but that cut student-based spending such as need-based aid, career services, student travel to competitions, tutoring programs, or skills programs.

Whether to finally reverse the tuition crisis, or to protect current student interests from austerity style budget cuts with accompanying falling law school applications, law students must organize to challenge the tuition and budgeting status quo. Like professors, we, too, are a constituency. The constituency that funds law schools. We must become more informed on why law school became so expensive and why tuition continues to increase.  We must challenge the continued competition for rankings. We must work to ensure that ours is the only generation of law students lost to debt conscription. Law faculty and administrators cannot be expected to address the iniquitous status quo; they are its main beneficiaries. The main constituencies suffering from this repurposing of law schools are law students and the public at large.  The public likely isn’t close enough to the issue to mobilize. It’s up to students.  For more on student organizing initiatives, see next week’s article—Challenging the Tuition Crisis.

Further Resources

Brian Tamanaha, “The Failure of Crits and Leftist Law Professors to Defend Progressive Causes,” Washington University in St. Louis School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series, (2013) Paper No. 13-04-02.

Paul Campos, The Crisis of the American Law School, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform October 2012.http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2102702.

Brian Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Richard Bourne, “The Coming Crash in Legal Education,” Creighton Law Review, August 2012.

A. Benjamin Spencer, “The Law School Critique in Historical Perspective,” Washington and Lee Law Review, Fall 2012.

Law School Admissions Council, Fear of Failing: The Effects of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on U.S. Law Schools.http://www.lsac.org/lsacresources/research/gr/gr-07-02.asp

U.S. Government Accountability Office, Higher Education: Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-20.

[1] American Bar Association, “Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar Statistics.” Available at:http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/statistics/ls_tuition.authcheckdam.pdf. All inflation calculations made using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator (http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm).

[2] Lawyer Demographics, American Bar Association. 88% of all lawyers are white.http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/marketresearch/Publi….

[3] “Addressing the Justice Gap,” New York Times, August 11, 2011. Available at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/24/opinion/addressing-the-justice-gap.htm….

[4] Figures come from the UC Davis website: http://www.law.ucdavis.edu/alumni/giving/why-give.html.

[5] “What are the priciest public law schools?” US News and World Report, 2013. Available at: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/….

[6] American Bar Association, “Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar Statistics.”

[7] Calculations made using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator:http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.

[8] Irwin Chemerinsky, “Keynote Speech: Reimagining Law Schools?” Iowa Law Review, July 2011, pg 1461.

[9] Richard Bourne, “The Coming Crash in Legal Education,” Creighton Law Review, August 2012, pg 661.

[10] A. Benjamin Spencer, The Law School Critique in Historical Perspective, Washington and Lee Law Review, Fall 2012, pg 1973.

[11] Ibid, 1975.

[12] Langell stated that, “what qualifies a person, therefore, to teach law is not experience in the work of a lawyer’s office, not experience in dealing with men, not experience in the trial or argument of causes – not experience, in short, in using law, but experience in learning law.”  Charles Warren, History of the Harvard Law School and of Early Legal Conditions in America (1908), at 361 (quoting a speech made by Dean Langdell at the dinner of the Harvard Law School Association on November 5, 1886).

[13] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, pg 25.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Harry S. Richards, “Progress in Legal Education,” in Handbook of the Association of American Law Schools and Proceedings of the…Annual Meeting, vol. 15 (1915) 60, quote at 63.

[16] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 25.

[17] David Segal, “For Law Schools, a Price to Play the A.B.A.’s Way,” New York Times, December 18, 2012. Available at:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/business/for-law-schools-a-price-to-pl….

[18] United States v. American Bar Association, Civil Action no. 95-1211, 934 F.Supp. 435.

[19] “The Law School Cartel,” New York Times, July 7, 1995. Available at:  http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/07/opinion/the-law-school-cartel.html.

[20] Marina Lao, “Discrediting Accreditation?: Antitrust and Legal Education,” Washington University Law Quarterly, Winter 2001, pg 1043.

[21] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 18.

[22] See United States v. American Bar Association, 2006-1 Trade Cases P 75295.

[23] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 46-47.

[24] AALS, Special Committee on Law School Administration and University Relations, Anatomy of Modern Legal Education(St. Paul, MN: West, 1961), 310.

[25] Mary Kay Kane, “Some Thoughts on Scholarship for Beginning Teachers,” Journal Legal Education 37 (1987): 14, quote at 16; emphasis added.

[26] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 108.

[27] See fn 38.

[28] Ken Myers, “Law Profs: Poor No More, Pay Is Up,” National Law Journal, October 18, 1993, 15.

[29] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 41-42

[30] See fn 38.

[31] U.S. Government Accountability Office, Higher Education: Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access.  Available at:http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-20.

[32] The US News rankings take into account the following criteria: A “Peer Assessment Score” in which deans and selected faculty are asked to rate other law schools on a scale of 1 – 5 (25%); an assessment score by the bar and bench, in the persons of State A.G.s, selected judges, and hiring partners at select firms (15%); “selectivity” in admissions, including median LSAT (12.5%), median GPA (10%) and a school’s acceptance rate (2.5%); “Placement Success” which is a measure of student success post-graduation in the form of employment at graduation (4%), nine months after graduation (14%), and bar passage rate (2%); and “Faculty Resources” which includes expenditures-per-student (11.25%), student-faculty ration (3%), and total library resources (.75%).

[33] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 78.

[34] Law School Admissions Council, Fear of Failing: The Effects of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on U.S. Law Schools. Available at: http://www.lsac.org/lsacresources/research/gr/gr-07-02.asp.

[35] Richard A. Matasar, “The Rise and Fall of American Legal Education,” New York Law School Law Review. pg 483.

[36] Julia Ann Easley, “Law academic plan envisions building, more students,” UC Davis News and Information, June 16, 2000. Available at:  http://dateline.ucdavis.edu/dl_detail.lasso?id=7592.

[37] Ibid.

[38] ABA Legal Education Standards 2013-14. Available at:http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/misc/legal_educa….

[39] Ibid.

[40] See fn 38.

[41] See fn 38.

[42] Denis Binder, “The Changing Paradigm In Public Legal Education,” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law, pg 22.

[43] Charlene Logan, “Rising fees threaten public law schools, dean says,” UC Davis News and Information, February 2, 2007. Available at: http://www.dateline.ucdavis.edu/dl_detail.lasso?id=9259.

[44] Dean Perschbacher Addresses UC Regents on Professional Fees, UC Davis News and Events, January 22, 2007. Available at: www.law.ucdavis.edu/news/news.aspx?id=1075.

[47] UC Davis. US World and News Report Rankings. Available at: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/….

[48] Brian Tamanaha, “The Failure of Crits and Leftist Law Professors to Defend Progressive Causes,” Washington University in St. Louis School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series, paper no. 13-04-02. pg22.

[49] Jack Crittenden, “Why is tuition up? Look at all the profs,” National Jurist Magazine (March 2010), pg 40.

[50] “Student-Faculty Ratio,” ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Available at:http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_educatio….

[51] Crittenden, “Why is tuition up?”

[52] Gender and Ethnicity, ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Available at:http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_educatio….

[53] “The Cost of Legal Scholarship,” Inside the Law School Scam Blog, Monday November 21, 2011. Available at:http://insidethelawschoolscam.blogspot.com/2011/11/cost-of-legal-scholar….

[54] Crittenden, “Why is tuition up?”

[55] Enrollment and Degrees Awarded, ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Available at:http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_educatio….

[56] Charlsie Dewey, “Law Schools See Big Decrease in Applications,” Grand Rapids Business Journal, April 26, 2013.

[57] “2012 Salary Distribution Curve,” National Association for Legal Career Professionals. Available at:http://www.nalp.org/salarydistrib.

[58] “UC Davis Career Statistics,” UC Davis Career Services. Available at: http://www.law.ucdavis.edu/current/career-services/statistics-1.html.

[59] Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 72-73.

[60] “UC Davis Career Statistics,” UC Davis Career Services.

[61] Approval of Professional Degree Supplemental Tuition Levels for 2012-13, pg 8. Available at:http://regents.universityofcalifornia.edu/regmeet/jul12/f6.pdf,

[62] The NALP salary curve for the class of 2011. Available at: http://www.nalp.org/salarycurve_classof2011.

[63] Tamanaha, “The Failure of Crits and Leftist Law Professors to Defend Progressive Causes,” 4.

[64] Ibid, 7.

[65] NALP Research: Salaries for New Lawyers: An Update on Where We Are and How We Got Here. Available at:http://www.nalp.org/uploads/0812Research.pdf.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Richard W. Bourne, “The Coming Crash in Legal Education: How We Got Here and Where We Go Now,” Creighton Law Review, August 2012, 664-665.

[68] Ibid,658-659.

Challenging the Tuition Crisis
By A.J. Cisneros, UC Davis NLG

[Download as PDF (includes Appendix 1 & 2)]
[Guide: Challenging Tuition Crisis with Information Requests]

Law students have remained largely silent in the face of the law school tuition crisis, but students can organize for budget transparency, administration accountability, and a return to historical tuition levels. The current cost of legal education limits access to education for students, forces students to take on enormous debt levels, and makes it more difficult than ever for lawyers to address the “justice gap” in America. The high costs of legal education can worsen the already stressful and competitive atmosphere of law school, leading to anxiety, depression, and isolation among law students. “Understanding The Law School Tuition Crisis” showed how law school tuition has skyrocketed in recent years and explained the roles of the American Bar Association, US News and World Report rankings, and law school faculty and administrators in the “arms race for prestige.” This section expands the conversation by exploring how students can organize to address the law school tuition crisis and by reflecting on the tuition organizing that took place at School of Law and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years.

In the 2012-13 year, law students at UC Davis were faced with a 9% tuition increase. UC Davis Law was already the most expensive public law school in the nation. The administration had already roughly doubled tuition between 2005 and 2010. Students organized to challenge the tuition crisis and in the process created the first law student “Budget Policy Committee” in the nation, obtained a faculty hiring freeze, and won a reduction in the planned fee increase for the following year. We also missed a lot of opportunities, made basic organizing mistakes, and allowed ourselves to become distracted and discouraged at various times. But we did accomplish change. We slowed the crisis at our school. And the short-term effort created a handful of long-term tuition activists that, as alumni, can exert pressure on the administration for years to come.

This piece is not a definitive “how-to guide” to stopping the law school tuition crisis. In thinking about strategies and tactics, there are many helpful guides to direct action, grassroots organizing, and agitation for social change written by experienced activists and organizers. NLG is the legal arm of the movement, and the activists in the many movements we assist have far more to teach you about organizing than I do. This piece simply shares what happened at UC Davis and offers some insights on tuition organizing that you may find helpful.

In that spirit, there are a few takeaways from tuition organizing that are worth stating upfront. First, there is no substitute for basic grassroots organizing. If you want people to get involved, ask them personally. Facebook events, posted flyers, emails from student organizations, announcements in classes about meetings and events, etc., are all good promotional tools. But if you don’t ask your colleagues, one by one, to get involved and stay involved, your effort will underperform. The biggest mistake we made was prioritizing promotion and publicity over basic organizing.

Second, the tuition crisis is driven by the US News rankings. In order to meaningfully lower tuition, a school must make certain decisions. These decisions may include cutting faculty or instituting a faculty-hiring freeze, lowering admission standards to seat full classes amid falling applications, reversing the practice of  “buying” high LSAT and GPA applicants with merit scholarships, mandating that professors teach more and research less thereby risking the departure of high profile faculty, and otherwise cutting overall expenditure. These decisions will impact the ranking. All signs point to the fact that preserving a US News rankings mindset and returning tuition to historical levels are mutually exclusive propositions. This scares students. But if you are serious about organizing to lower tuition at your school, it’s best to get used to the idea that lowering tuition means a drop in the rankings.

Remember, though, that a drop in the rankings does not necessarily mean a drop in your school’s educational quality. In fact, the rankings incentivize the marginalization and exploitation of law students. The rankings focus on a school’s reputation as a research institution, rather than it’s quality as an instructional institution. The rankings “measure” the quality of a student body by valuing selectivity in admissions (LSAT, GPA, how many people a school turns away) at a whopping 25% of the total rank, while bar passage rate is only valued at 2% of the total rank. Total expenditures per student make up 11.25% of the total rank. The rankings do not measure average class size, quality of instruction, diversity of class offerings, an administration’s responsiveness to student concerns, the effectiveness of clinical or skill building programs, or any number of other indicators of quality. In short, the rankings do a very poor job of measuring the quality of your legal education.

Third, convincing students that law school tuition is a harmful crisis and that current tuition levels are fundamentally unfair does not guarantee that students will believe change is possible or that they will be willing to confront administration decision-making. After a year of sustained tuition organizing at UC Davis, we conducted a survey. Participation in the survey likely skewed towards those involved or interested in the tuition effort. Among respondents, 90% of students agreed nationwide tuition was too high. Around 75% agreed that law school tuition was a harmful crisis. But fewer students were comfortable challenging the US News rankings or second-guessing administrators’ decisions regarding faculty hiring, the prioritization of legal scholarship over instruction, or selectivity in student admissions. And, strikingly, only around 25% of respondents firmly believed that a nationwide student movement could meaningfully lower law school tuition. Remember, we need to do more than convince students that tuition is an unfair and harmful crisis.  We need to convince them that change is possible.

Hopefully you can avoid some of the mistakes we made. Hopefully your successes are remarkable enough as to make ours irrelevant by comparison. Because that’s what the legal profession, and the society it serves, needs. We need students to say, “Enough is enough.” We need committed, inspired students like yourself to orchestrate a grassroots student movement that, through organizing, agitation, education, and direct action, reverses the tuition crisis, inspires a generation of law students, and radically alters the future of the legal profession. If not you, then who? If not now, then when?

Challenging Tuition Hikes at King Hall (UC Davis)

In the summer before the 2012-13 school year, the administration of the UC Davis School of Law – known as “King Hall” after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – announced a 9% tuition increase. After suffering through skyrocketing tuition for years, students finally organized to oppose the increases. Students demanded the following: full budget transparency, a series of tuition town hall meetings, and the formation of a student budget policy committee to oversee and provide input on any future proposed fee or spending increases. After a flurry of student organizing, students made headway on all their demands. The Deans promised a 5% fee increase, rather than the planned 9% fee increase. The Deans also promised a faculty-hiring freeze for the 2014-15 school year. And UC Davis is, to my knowledge, the first campus to have a student budget committee and is possibly the first law school in the nation where student organizing has resulted in a promise of slowed tuition increases and a faculty-hiring freeze.

The results of the UC Davis model also illustrate its drawbacks and limitations. The creation of the Budget Policy Committee (BPC) has been a double-edged sword. We hoped that by creating a permanent committee, the student effort to resist the tuition crisis would have continuity and sustainability. After all, student organizing is disadvantaged by the fact that students leave every year, while the administration and faculty remain. And we did succeed in creating a sustainable institution that potentially may serve as an ongoing vehicle for tuition reform.

But in creating a regulatory body of sorts, we invited the problems that come with a regulatory approach – rather than a direct action approach – to social change. The existence of the committee diminished the sense of urgency in the student body. After all, why must they get involved? Isn’t the BPC handling it? And the creation of the BPC gave the administration a catch-all answer to students voicing any concerns related to spending or budgeting: “Take it to the BPC.”

More worrisome, as soon as the spirit of activism and resistance stopped animating the BPC’s participants, the BPC proved vulnerable to capture by the administration. The BPC was born of resistance and a willingness to confront the administration. But before long, students on the BPC became highly deferential to the administration. And at times the BPC was more interested in being apologists for the Deans than advocates for their fellow students.

But the future of the BPC is unwritten. And for the effort at your school you’ll have to decide for yourself whether to prioritize ad hoc activism, the creation of institutional student influence, a mix of the two, or something else entirely.

How It Started: The Potential of Student Government to Confront the Law School Tuition Crisis

At UC Davis the effort to confront the administration began with our student government (LSA). Our NLG chapter played a critical role in supporting LSA, and we continued organizing on the tuition effort after LSA moved on, but we didn’t have to start the effort ourselves. We learned that student government leadership brings multiple advantages. LSA’s leadership gave the effort an initial sense of unity and legitimacy. Had the NLG chapter initiated the campaign alone, or even with a social justice coalition, it might have been viewed with more reservation by both the administration and the student body. Another challenge to proceeding without student government support is that absent their “buy-in” in advance, it’s more likely they will feel pressure to play the “negotiator” role between the social justice students and the administration. These problems became clear during NLG-led organizing in the 2013-14 school year. The advantages of having student government lead the effort are substantial. Substantial enough, even, to warrant making getting involved in student government a worthwhile part of a strategy to confront the tuition crisis.

Below you’ll see how our student government led the way, and how our NLG chapter bolstered their efforts.

The Initial Email:

Our LSA President sent the following email on July 19, 2012, regarding new and unexpected (for students) fee hikes:

Dear Classes of 2013 and 2014,

As you know, our law school costs have gone up for this upcoming year.  On the horizon is another increase.  For those of you who do not know, yesterday, the UC Regents voted to raise our costs by another 10%.  This is unacceptable.  The time for direct action on this issue is long overdue.  I am working with the LSA Board to implement a multi-pronged strategy to combat the assault on our current and future students.  We need to rally around this issue together if we hope to make a lasting change.  Therefore, we will need your support and participation. Stay tuned on how you can get involved.  In the meantime, contact me or the External Vice-President with questions, comments, or concerns.  I am speaking with Dean Johnson tomorrow, and I will be in touch with you again very soon.

Our NLG chapter quickly voted to support efforts made by LSA and informed our LSA President that he could count on us to assist with any organizing/mobilization around the issue. If you are working with your student government to initiate a tuition effort, encourage them to frame the issue in clear terms (“this is unacceptable”). And especially encourage them to solicit student participation and not simply rely on their ability to negotiate on the issue.  It’s likely that your NLG chapter has some of the most experienced activists and organizers on your campus, and it helps for there to be no question that organizing and activism not only have a place in the effort but are central to it.

Takeaways: Student Government can give early unity and legitimacy to an effort. So much so that getting involved in student government may be a worthwhile initial step to tuition organizing. But if they lead the way, make sure they know they can count on the NLG chapter for substantive organizing support and encourage them to include an explicit call for student involvement.

LSA Reaches Out to the Student Orgs

After resolving to move forward, LSA held a “Brown Bag Lunch” (a lunchtime meeting event where no food is served) on September 12, 2012. They invited the heads of all the student organizations (although anyone was welcome to attend) to “have an open discussion about how to deal with student fee and tuition increases.” LSA used the meeting to solicit input on an open letter they had resolved to send the Dean regarding unexpected fee hikes and budget transparency.

Our NLG chapter was active in the meeting. But we could have done more at what, in hindsight, was a critical moment in the effort. Several NLG board members attended and, to ensure we could participate meaningfully, we appointed an active 1L to be our “point person” on the issue. While we made sure our board was informed and engaged, we didn’t do enough to promote the meeting to our social justice colleagues. As such, some of the more active social justice students and organizations didn’t get the opportunity to give input and later some felt alienated from the effort.

Takeaways: Organize from the start and recruit as many influential students as early as possible, even if your student government is calling the meeting. Make sure every social justice student has been personally invited to any organizing meeting as they can, in turn, influence the effort to ensure it reflects social justice values. The students and organizations who aren’t involved in the early stages are more likely to question or oppose the effort on behalf of the administration later on.

The Open Letter

LSA sent the open letter to the Deans on September 13, 2012. The letter cited concern over rising student loan debt, called for an annual circulation of the King Hall budget presented in a simple format, and requested the formation of a permanent student committee to provide input on King Hall’s annual budget.

The open letter generated significant discussion on campus about the tuition increases and the lack of budget transparency. There were indications that the Deans were unhappy with the letter. There’s anecdotal evidence that the Deans reached out to social justice-oriented students and falsely advised them that the effort was aimed at cutting need-based aid. While the open letter created administration pushback, it also created “buzz” on the issue that would have been difficult to generate otherwise.

Takeaways: Open letters can create “buzz” that can be difficult to generate otherwise. But they may provoke some hostility from the administration and a degree of insecurity from students who weren’t connected to the organizing effort. Keep these tradeoffs in mind when considering this tactic.

Maintaining the Momentum

On September 14, 2012, our NLG board met to discuss the best way to support the effort moving forward. We voted to hold a tuition-themed general meeting in order to continue the momentum prior to the tuition town halls and to encourage other student groups to also hold tuition-themed meetings in order to reach as many students and social networks on campus as possible.  In order to promote our meeting, and to continue discussion amongst our colleagues, we publicized the meeting with a chart tracking the history of tuition increases at UC Davis adjusted for inflation.

While the poster helped continue the “buzz” after the open letter, we ultimately didn’t do enough to encourage other student organizations to support the tuition effort by holding tuition-themed general meetings. Additional meetings would have been helpful as a challenge we continually encountered was that no one knew the answer to basic questions about why tuition was so high. And we found that students needed space to vent their frustrations.

Takeaways: A tuition-themed meeting by your NLG chapter may be a good idea. But consider working to ensure that there are plenty of spaces in which students can vent frustration and ask introductory questions.

A Threat To Momentum  

On September 17, 2012, a group of social justice-oriented students held an informal meeting where suspicion and opposition towards the open letter was voiced. The organizers of the meeting were supportive of the administration and expressed the opinion that the letter made unreasonable demands and took an inappropriate and confrontational tone. Thankfully, several NLG members attended the meeting.

Two distinct viewpoints emerged. Students who had attended the LSA “brown bag” meeting felt the letter appropriately expressed student concerns. Students who had not attended the brown bag—and who were surprised by the open letter—were more sympathetic to the pro-administration point of view. Opposition to the effort by social justice students didn’t last, but it was instructive. Absent their participation in the planning stages, even our social justice colleagues’ default position was to support the administration and to distrust the student government effort. It’s unclear whether the Deans approached these students or whether the students called the meeting on their own, but without such clear NLG support this brief division could have become a more significant schism in the student body.

Takeaways: If the administration at your school enjoys a lot of student goodwill, remember that even social justice students will not automatically trust or support a student effort to address the tuition crisis, especially if they weren’t involved in the planning stages.

Leadup to the Townhalls: Support and Preparation

On September 24, 2012, the same day as the NLG tuition meeting, our Dean announced two townhall forums, promised to supply budget information, and endorsed the formation of a student budget committee as requested by the LSA open letter. In the interim between the open letter and the townhalls, the Deans met with LSA members. These students reported feeling “under fire” during these meetings. Remember, many students drawn to student government aren’t accustomed to opposing the status quo or speaking truth to power. As NLG students, we can make a big difference by offering emotional and political support to our colleagues who may be feeling vulnerable or insecure in the face of administration pushback during organizing efforts.

Townhall meetings on tuition provide a valuable opportunity for your NLG chapter to use its skills and perspective. Your members are likely some of the most experienced and passionate organizers on campus; meanwhile most law students have never organized or even participated in a movement for social change. Townhall meetings give your chapter an urgent reason to mobilize attendance, create educational materials, and spread a message of optimism and empowerment. At no point during the UC Davis effort was there more solidarity, focus, and optimism around tuition issues than in the lead-up to the first townhall.

While our chapter worked to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the townhall, we did some things well and we could have done other things better. Our plan included hosting two “tuition think tanks” to develop digestible tuition information to ensure our student body was informed and engaged with the issue in advance of the townhalls. Aside from heavily promoting attendance at the townhalls as an obligation for all Guild members, we sent emails to other student orgs asking them for firm commitments on how many members they planned to send. We also planned a Facebook “did you know” tuition information campaign in the days leading up to the townhall and we engaged in face-to-face recruitment in the halls the morning of the townhalls. We didn’t accomplish all our goals, notably the tuition think tanks suffered from lack of advanced planning, but our efforts made a difference.

Takeaways: Townhall meetings are a great recruitment opportunity! Use upcoming townhalls as a chance to talk with as many students as possible about the tuition issue. If you want to generate digestible information or recruitment materials prior to the townhalls, do as much in advance as you can to make sure time spent in any kind of workgroup is productive and doesn’t only provide another space for venting frustration. And don’t forget that experienced NLG activists can provide important emotional and political support to students who aren’t as experienced challenging authority figures.

The Townhall Meetings

The first townhall took place on October 2, 2012, and approximately 200 students attended, making it one of the best-attended student events of the year. The Deans used the occasion to announce a proposal to raise our fees by 5%, rather than the planned 9%. While the Deans expressed sympathy for our concerns, they largely advanced an “it isn’t our fault” narrative. Increasing fees were blamed primarily on cuts in state funding rather than on increased expenditures. Increased student services (clinics, academic success services, increased career services) were cited for the proposition that “students are demanding more from modern law schools.” While US News-driven spending increases on faculty or merit based aid was not, to my memory, explicitly stated as a reason for perpetual fee increases. The Deans did not consent to having the townhalls recorded. Students didn’t challenge the Deans on the issue of filming the townhalls

The second tuition townhall was held on October 9, 2014, and allowed more time for question and answer. Although NLG members asked some important questions, we likely could have done more to take advantage of this opportunity to hold the administration accountable. Even though we were happy with attendance at the townhall, in hindsight we should have done more to organize students to get informed on the issue and we should have developed and circulated more questions to be asked at the townhalls. While a focus on recruiting attendance for townhalls may be advisable, don’t assume that your colleagues will be taking time from their studies to get informed on tuition and law school budgets. The easier you make it for them to become engaged in the issue, the better.

Takeways: It’s good to focus on recruiting attendance for Townhalls. But don’t forget that most law students don’t have a good working knowledge on why tuition is so high or why their massive tuition doesn’t correlate to increased educational value.  If you can, provide background materials and develop questions in advance.

The Formation of the Budget Policy Committee and Moving Forward

Our efforts got results: a proposal to scale back tuition increases, the circulation of budget info that students previously never had access to, the administration’s promise to work with a student budget committee, the announcement of a faculty-hiring freeze, and the chance to question the Deans in two townhall forums.

Unfortunately, determined activism diminished in the wake of the two townhall forums.  Student energy was diverted. Rather than continuing to challenge the administration, students focused on deciding the contours of our newly-won, permanent student budget committee with the expectation that it would direct future efforts.  Find the UC Davis NLG proposal for the Budget Policy Committee in the appendix.

Takeaways: At UC Davis, students formed a permanent student committee that has access to tuition and budget information and that is responsible for spreading tuition information to the student body. While this addresses the challenge of quick student turnover inherent in any student organizing effort, it can result in decreased urgency to address the problem. And once the students on the committee accept the administration’s point of view, they can serve as a stumbling block to further organizing. If you form such a committee at your school, make sure your chapter is committed to staying involved in the committee year after year. And don’t let the formation of a committee distract you from ongoing activism aimed at tuition reduction.

Continued Activism

With the start of the 2013-2014 school year, students continued organizing around tuition at UC Davis. Our efforts included hosting an all-day tuition event in November, planning tuition crisis presentations at regional NLG events, weekly meetings, involvement in the Budget Policy Committee, continued outreach to the student body, continued research and writing on the tuition crisis, outreach to students at other law schools, faculty outreach, and other activities.

However, for a variety of reasons the effort was less successful than the previous year’s effort. The all-day event was not as heavily attended as it needed to be. Neither the student government nor the Budget Policy Committee were as willing to confront the administration as they previously had been. In fact, at some key moments, those groups opposed continued calls for tuition reform. And the lack of an impending tuition increase decreased students’ sense of urgency overall.          

Subsequent to the November event, our efforts slowed. Low attendance at many of our events, including the November event, made us question whether we were directing our efforts wisely. Myself and others allowed ourselves to become discouraged with our lack of progress and distracted by our other responsibilities. But, even though we weren’t getting the results we wanted, we were still regularly engaging students, faculty, and the administration on the tuition issue. And we ensured that 1Ls, who were not present for the 2012-2013 organizing, were exposed to tuition activism early on.

In hindsight, efforts during the 2013-2014 school year were lacking in two main ways. We should have focused less on “event promotion” and more on grassroots organizing. And we should have included direct action and other forms of confrontational activism in our efforts.

We focused on promoting our big November event, while we should have focused on organizing attendance and participation in it. We contacted, and re-contacted, every student org and encouraged them to endorse and promote the event. We posted lots of flyers. We promoted heavily on Facebook. We asked the student president and the BPC to send out emails to the entire student body encouraging people to attend. What we failed to do was grassroots organizing. We didn’t have a list of people who we personally solicited commitments to attend from. We didn’t make any confirmation calls. Folks knew a big event was happening, and they were talking about tuition around campus, but not enough folks felt personally committed to attending and taking part. We promoted; we didn’t really organize. And because of that mistake we didn’t get the results we wanted.

Our efforts also lacked confrontational activism. We were attempting to build a coalition of law students in order to pressure the administration and we were worried that confrontational tactics would cost us too much support among students who were uncomfortable with activism. Looking back, the students who were uncomfortable with activism didn’t help us anyway. And we missed many opportunities to meaningfully pressure the administration. Further, its not unlikely that direct action would have energized the effort and improved recruitment.

Takeaways: Don’t become complacent and substitute event promotion for organizing.  Organizing is harder than promotion, but its much more meaningful and will more reliably produce results. And beware foregoing direct action and other confrontational tactics in order to court a broader coalition of students. You may discover that your effort ends up enjoying broad “support,” but lacks energy, urgency, and broad participation.  But remember, your effort doesn’t have to be perfect. Even our less successful 2013-2014 efforts kept students involved and placed some pressure on the administration.

Other Ways To Address the Tuition Crisis

There is no single way to address the tuition crisis. At UC Davis, open letters, student mobilization, townhall forums, and the formation of budget policy committees netted promising results. But our effort was lacking in direct action. And we allowed ourselves to believe that we were free to disengage once we delegated responsibility to a Budget Policy Committee. Here are some ideas for other ways to address the tuition crisis:

Protest, Demonstrate, Take Direct Action! Demonstrations and direct action were absent from the UC Davis effort.  But countless examples from history illustrate the power of demonstration, protest, and direct action. Some of your colleagues may be initially uncomfortable with the idea, but there’s little doubt that walkouts, protests, and the like will force administrators and faculty to think more carefully about tuition issues. And direct action aimed at disrupting symposia, student recruitment, or alumni events will place pressure on the administration to concede to your demands for lower tuition. As is always the case with protest and direct action, be thoughtful in considering the risks. But remember that your power is yours to give away.

Work Regionally and Nationally! As the tuition crisis is a nationwide problem, efforts at coordinating efforts nationally (or at least regionally) will likely make a bigger impact on more tuition decision makers than would efforts at individual schools. As an added benefit, a concerted effort aimed at coordinating actions across campuses will encourage student resistance to spread!

Get Information! The tuition crisis is built on a series of lies. Lies about increased expenditures increasing education value. Lies about the need for ever-larger faculty to create more and more legal research. Lies about job opportunities after law school. Lies about tuition increases going to make up for decreasing state contributions. Challenge these lies. If you attend a public school, you may be able to use public records requests to gain information. Consider requesting information about the history of state funding to your law school, the growth of faculty since 1990 (dawn of the US News era), average class size since 1990, scholarly output since 1990, yearly total expenditures, etc.

Whether you attend private or public school, you can always exert pressure on administrators to release information with the threat of protests, disruption, and public relations campaigns. And remember that refusals to provide information are great organizing opportunities as even conservative students may become indignant when the administration outright refuses to release information.

Talk to your faculty! While law school faculty have been some of the greatest beneficiaries of the tuition crisis, they can also be allies in this effort.  Faculty routinely work together to place pressure on administrators for higher pay, more time for research, the preservation of academic freedom, and other issues which directly impact their employment. Subsequent to the 2012-2013 effort, we engaged in faculty outreach on this issue. We were surprised to learn that many faculty are as uninformed on the roots of the tuition crisis as students are!

It would be beneficial if, when advocating for their interests, faculty had a deeper appreciation for the devastating impact of the tuition crisis on students. Don’t underestimate the impact of one of their students speaking frankly about the impact of the tuition crisis on student lives. We need to change the attitude in the legal academy towards law school tuition. Sharing articles with them on the tuition crisis can be a good way to initiate conversation. Find good articles to share in “Understanding the Law School Tuition Crisis” in this manual! And the NLG Faculty Network can help you find sympathetic Guild scholars and professors who can assist your organizing efforts!

Alumni can help! Because of the rapid escalation of law school tuition, most alumni don’t realize just how high law school tuition is today. While schools routinely solicit alumni for their support, most alumni haven’t heard about the tuition crisis from a student perspective.  As alumni are an important constituency at any law school, recruiting alumni to pressure the administration to lower tuition can be an effective way to exert pressure. And after you’ve graduated, make sure to support students and pressure your school to lower tuition

Present at Conferences! Legal and legal education conferences take place regularly and are a way to raise awareness about this issue. Organize a discussion at a conference or convention for any organization you are a part of and contact conference organizers for other organizations to see if you can discuss the law school tuition crisis from a student perspective. Propose panels on tuition hikes and student organizing at NLG regional and national conventions!

Lobby Legislators! If you attend a public school, consider discussing the law school tuition crisis with your legislators. Many legislators went to law school, and most don’t realize how out of control the tuition crisis is. Nor do they realize how much state and student money goes to fund US News-incentivized expenditures which have very little connection to instructing students.  Administrators of public schools will likely encourage you to simply ask for more state money for law schools. But state money without pressures to reform are likely to be dedicated to more US News-incentivized expenditures, rather than to tuition discounts. When talking to legislators, remember that you aren’t just advocating for your school, you are advocating for your fellow students and for an end to the tuition crisis!

Don’t Give Up! Law school can keep you busy. There is always another deadline around the corner. But don’t give up. As long as you make sure that some tuition organizing, any tuition organizing, is taking place on a weekly basis at your school, you are exerting pressure. Remember the stakes. The future of the legal profession hangs in the balance. Do your best!

Appendix 1: UC Davis Student Budget Policy Cmte Proposal

Appendix 2: Law School Tuition Crisis One Pager

Confronting Law Student Debt
By Liberty Straney (NLG-Portland), Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin (Gonzaga NLG), and Mariah Thompson (University of Virginia NLG)

[Download PDF]

This section addresses student debt—an issue of particular importance to law students. While the topic clearly has personal financial implications, it is important to understand student debt as part of a larger systemic problem that threatens to put higher education in general, and legal education in particular, out of reach for all but those with the most resources already at their disposal. This section provides some background information about law school tuition, the student debt crisis, and repayment options. As conversations about student debt take place within schools, communities, and legislatures, progressive voices are needed to inform the debate and ensure that those with the ability and will to succeed in law school are not deterred from becoming attorneys because of the financial burden.

Law School Tuition

There is no dispute that borrowing money to attend law school is a risky financial investment. Tuition is high, and the scarce jobs pay less than they used to. In 2010, 85% of students who graduated from ABA accredited schools had an average debt load of $98,500. But nine months after graduating, only 68% were employed in positions that required a J.D. Adding to the problem, the median starting salary had fallen 20%.[1] Many painted the issue as one of oversupply: there’s not enough demand for legal services to support so many lawyers. But when legal aid is forced to turn away half of the people who walk in because of a lack of resources, it’s hard to see the issue as a lack of demand for legal services.[2]

Had the cost of law school tuition kept pace with inflation between 1985 and 2009, a public law school education would cost $3,945 per year, or $14,800 at a private law school. Instead, during that time period tuition at public schools increased 820%, and 375% at private schools.[3] A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress concluded that a driving force behind the increase in law school tuition has been competition over the US News law school rankings (See “Understanding the Law School Tuition Crisis”). Any ranking system rests on certain assumptions about educational quality based on a normative standard and doesn’t always reflect subjective differences between schools. The US News rankings in particular influence law schools to direct resources towards reinforcing traditional notions of prestige. While many factors go into determining a school’s rank, median LSAT score is the most heavily weighted factor that law schools can directly affect. This is why law school admissions offices use merit-based scholarships as a way to attract students with the highest scores. By giving out money to the applicants with the highest LSAT scores, law schools can buy themselves a boost in the rankings. In 2009, more than 1 in 4 law students received merit scholarships at a total cost of $500 million.[4] This may sound like good news for the recipients of these scholarships, but the practice deserves a brief explanation and a word of caution to those courted by admissions offices on this basis.

Incoming students may be offered a substantial merit-based scholarship for all three years, but retaining the scholarship after the first year is usually contingent on maintaining a certain grade point average. This may seem easy for students who are used to excelling academically, but law school grading practices make it more difficult than it seems. First, students should be aware that up to half of the incoming class likely received a similar offer and the first year grading curve will inevitably limit the percentage of students who will maintain the required GPA and keep their scholarship past the 1L year. Second, do not assume you will be a law school prodigy. The methods of teaching, testing and grading are unlike anything encountered in college and can take time to adjust to. Many first year classes only have one exam at the end which doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.

If you are offered this kind of scholarship, ask questions: How many incoming students have been offered scholarships? What are the first year grading practices? What percentage of the first year class usually maintains the required GPA? How many students lose their scholarship after the first or second year? Admissions offices may be reluctant to tell you and you may need to do some research. But students should be aware of the very real risk that they will end up having to borrow money to pay for years two and three.

The greater concern is that this increase in merit-based scholarships has come at the expense of the need-based scholarships that lower-income students used to rely on. During the 1994-95 school year, before the US News rankings rose to prominence, 58% of aid was need-based while 42% was merit-based. In the 2009-10 school year, only 16% of scholarships were based on need while 84% were based on merit.[5] Because LSAT is significantly correlated with socio-economic class, this means that those entering law school with the most social capital end up receiving the most financial aid, while those with lower scores pay full price[6]. Additionally, the over-emphasis on LSAT scores means that other relevant admissions factors, such as community service or overcoming personal difficulty, are sidelined. A definition of merit that tends to reflect and reinforce social inequality has particularly serious consequences for a legal profession that struggles to increase diversity and access to justice. You will inevitably encounter much hand-wringing over your school’s place in the US News rankings and when you do consider it a chance to voice opposition to budget decisions that value traditional notions of prestige over access and equality of opportunity.

The Student Debt Crisis

The crushing debt faced by law students is part of a larger student debt crisis with wider social and economic implications. It used to be possible to graduate from many public universities and law schools practically debt free with the help of grants, scholarships, and work study jobs. The Higher Education Act of 1965 first provided for broad-based financial aid in the form of grants and loans, and created incentives for states to form their own grant programs.[7] Grants were the largest type of student aid until 1982 when they were outpaced by loans.[8] Now tuition continues to soar while state support for higher education declines dramatically.[9] Consequently, students are taking on greater and greater amounts of debt. Outstanding student loan debt is now over $1 trillion, this year surpassing even credit card and housing debt, while wages for college-educated workers who are employed outside of the finance industry have stagnated and fallen.[10]

A whole student loan industry has emerged to meet the growing demand.  In the early 1990s, Sallie Mae developed something equivalent to mortgage backed securities: Student Loan Asset-Backed Securities (SLABS). Even after trading in asset-backed securities peaked in 2007 and crashed in 2008, SLABS are still considered safe investments.[11] This is because, in addition to federal guarantees, student loan debt has been non-dischargeable in bankruptcy since 2005 when the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act extended non-dischargeability to all education loans. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no statute of limitations and collectors can garnish not only wages, but even unemployment benefits and social security payments.[12]

Since student debt passed the $1 trillion mark in March 2012, these issues have come to the forefront and individuals and communities around the country who believe that higher education is a public good are organizing to address the student debt crisis.  For example, in Oregon, legislators unanimously passed a bill that will make it possible for students to attend public universities essentially tuition free. Under the legislation, Oregon’s Higher Education Coordination Commission will develop a public university financing model called “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” that eliminates the role of big banks. Instead of loans, this will be a social insurance program that allows students to pay nothing while in school and commit to paying a small percentage of their income for a period of time after graduating. Students will have no debt, no interest, and their percentage would never change. There are more ideas and legislative proposals being discussed than could be listed here, but as public outrage mounts and the political response takes shape, you will likely encounter opportunities to get involved in shaping the solution. A list of further resources is included at the end of this section.

Repayment Options (It’s not all bad news!)

Law school is not always a path to financial security, but financial security was probably not what set you on the path to law school. Instead, you likely plan to help underserved communities fight for justice. You will face an uphill battle and you may have to be willing to tolerate the debt. However, by investing your time in advancing justice you will discover a greater satisfaction than money can buy. While the price tag can be intimidating, in some ways a commitment to doing public interest legal work is a solution to huge student debt loads. By combining loan forgiveness and income-based repayment, borrowers can repay their student loans while doing gratifying work that serves the public interest. Of course, every debtor is different, so it is important that each individual make educated decisions about their own situations.

There may be forgiveness options available that make the cost of law school bearable, but use caution when planning a career because regulations or personal circumstances may change. When taking on a student loan, always borrow the bare minimum you need and don’t assume that you will be able to forgive all or part of it later. Also, it is important to note that the IRS often considers forgiven loans to be taxable. If you do have some or all of your loans forgiven, the amount forgiven may end up affecting the amount of taxes owed in the year of the forgiveness. You should consult a tax professional for information regarding your specific situation.

Most federal loans are given directly to students through the Direct Loan program. There are also private student loans available through financial institutions that lend money without any financial backing from the federal government. Borrowers should be wary of private loans, since there are no interest rate limits and they do not have the same range of repayment options and borrower protections of government loans. The repayment options discussed here apply to federal loans.

Many repayment options are not available once your loan is in default. To avoid going into default, you may qualify for a deferment or forbearance in certain circumstances. Prior to income based repayment plans, deferment was the only legitimate option for unemployed or marginally employed borrowers. A deferment is generally available in the event of unemployment or economic hardship, if you are not already in default. You will not be charged interest on subsidized loans during a deferment period. If you do not qualify for a deferment, forbearance will allow you to temporarily suspend payments. While forbearance may be available even if you are in default, you will be charged interest during the forbearance period.

Student loan forgiveness and discharge are state or federal government programs that eliminate some or all of a student’s debt if the student meets certain criteria. These programs help borrowers who work in areas of need or face unexpected circumstances. The difference between forgiveness and discharge is the circumstances under which you can cancel your debt. Loan discharges are usually for circumstances such as death or a total and permanent disability, where it has become impossible for the student to repay the loan. Loan forgiveness programs usually apply to borrowers who work in public service. There are also special repayment programs for low-income borrowers that act as a type of loan forgiveness. Borrowers now have numerous repayment options, suggesting that the government may be more interested in avoiding defaulting borrowers than in recouping its full financial investment.

The following is a list of options that may be available:[13]

John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program

Eligible applicants to this forgiveness plan can receive up to $4,000 per year, for a maximum of $60,000. This program applies to Stafford loans, Grad PLUS loans, Consolidation loans and Perkins loans. To apply for this repayment plan, follow the procedures set forth by your state’s designated agency.


●    You must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen and be an attorney continually licensed to practice law.

●    One of the following institutions must also employ you full time:

○    A state or unit of local government that prosecutes criminal or juvenile delinquency cases

○    A state or unit of local government that provides legal representation to indigent persons in criminal or juvenile delinquency cases

○    A nonprofit organization operating under a contract or unit of local government that devotes substantially all of the employee’s full-time employment to providing legal representation to indigent persons in criminal or juvenile cases

○    A defender organization that provides legal representation to indigent persons in criminal or juvenile delinquency cases

Perkins Loan Cancellation and Discharge

These are federal, low-interest loans that 1,700 participating schools award to high-need students. Perkins loans have unique requirements for loan cancellation based on the field in which the borrower works. Depending on the profession, Perkins loan borrowers can have up to 100% of their loan cancelled over the course of 5 years in most circumstances. Perkins loans also offer concurrent deferment if you are performing qualifying service. Combining that postponement with these cancellation options means you could potentially never have to make payments on these loans. For attorneys, you must be employed full time in a federal public or community defender organization. You must perform qualified service that includes August 14, 2008, or began on or after that date. You may receive up to 100% forgiveness of your loans.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

This option applies to Direct Stafford loans, Direct Parent and Grad PLUS loans and Direct Consolidation loans, but not to Perkins Loans. Parent PLUS loans are only eligible if you consolidate them into a Direct Consolidation loan and repay them under the standard or income-contingent repayment plan. You can consolidate any non-Direct loans into Direct loans; however, the payments you made on the underlying loans do not qualify.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness dismisses the remaining balance of student loans after 120 qualifying payments under the standard, income-based, income contingent, or Pay As You Earn repayment plan. The 120 payments do not have to be consecutive to qualify the borrower for forgiveness. Payments made before October 1, 2007, and payments made while in default, do not count. You must have been working full time (a minimum of 30 hours/week) at a public service or nonprofit organization when you make a qualifying payment, or working at least 30 hours at two or more part time jobs at eligible organizations. Switching between nonprofits or public service jobs does not affect eligibility. Eligible borrowers may receive up to 100% of the remaining outstanding balance after 10 years and 120 eligible payments.  Each year you should file a certification that you made eligible payments. The form to apply for this forgiveness plan is available online: http://studentaid.ed.gov/sites/default/files/public-service-employment-certification-form.pdf.


It can be difficult to discharge federal student loans through bankruptcy. You must prove to a bankruptcy judge that repaying your loans would constitute an undue hardship. This generally requires you to show that there is no likelihood of any future ability to repay. If you are eligible, you can have up to 100% of your loan’s amount forgiven. Loans that qualify are Stafford loans, Parent PLUS loans, Grad PLUS loans, Consolidation loans and Perkins loans. You must apply for this type of discharge in an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court. To learn how to go about doing this: http://www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org/bankruptcy/.

Income-Based Repayment

This option applies to Stafford loans, Grad PLUS loans and Consolidation loans, except loans that include Parent PLUS loans. You must make 25 years of eligible payments or 300 payments under the income-based repayment (IBR) program. Only payments made on or after July 1, 2009, count.

Not all borrowers will qualify for IBR. You must have a partial financial hardship—meaning that payments to your eligible loans exceed 15% of your discretionary income. IBR caps the maximum monthly payment at 15% of your discretionary income. This is the difference between your AGI (adjusted gross income) and 150% of the annual poverty guideline for your family size and state. If you are eligible, you can have up to 100% of your outstanding balance forgiven after 25 years (10 if you work in public service and apply for public service loan forgiveness). To apply for IBR, you need to submit two forms to your servicer: an application and an IRS Tax Form 4506-T.

Income-Contingent Repayment

This option applies to Direct Stafford loans, Direct Grad PLUS loans, and Direct Consolidation loans (including those with Parent PLUS loans). The government provides programs for low-income borrowers to avoid default on their student loans. You must make 25 years of eligible payments or 300 payments under the income contingent repayment (ICR) program. Payments are calculated each year and are based on your annual income (this includes your spouse’s income if you file jointly), family size, and the total amount of your federal student loans. Payments are capped at 20% of your discretionary income. If you are eligible, you can have up to 100% of your outstanding balance forgiven after 25 years (10 if you work in public service). To apply for ICR, sign in to studentloans.gov and complete a request form.

Pay As You Earn Forgiveness

This option applies to Direct Stafford loans, Direct Grad PLUS loans, and Direct Consolidation loans, except those that include a Parent PLUS loan or a loan made prior to October 1, 2007. You must be a new Direct Loan borrower as of October 1, 2007, or have paid all your previous direct loans when you received new loans with a disbursement made after October 1, 2011. Any Direct Consolidation loan made on or after October 1, 2011—that does not include a Parent PLUS loan or a loan made prior to October 1, 200—is eligible. Pay As You Earn provides better terms than the original Income Based Repayment Plans.

You must make 20 years (10 if you work in public service) of payments under the Pay As You Earn repayment plan. Not all borrowers qualify for Pay As You Earn. To qualify, you must have a partial financial hardship—meaning payments to your eligible loans exceed 10% of your discretionary income. Pay As You Earn caps your maximum monthly payment at 10% of discretionary income (the difference between your AGI and 150% of the annual poverty guideline for your family size and state). If you are eligible, you can have up to 100% of your outstanding balance (after 240 eligible payments) forgiven. To apply for Pay As You Earn forgiveness, sign in to studentloans.gov and complete a request form.


Stafford loans, Grad PLUS loans, Parent PLUS loans, Consolidation loans and Perkins loans may be discharged by the borrower’s family if the borrower dies. Parent PLUS loans can be discharged if the borrower (the parent) dies or if the student on whose behalf the loan was borrowed dies. In the case of spousal Consolidation loans, only the portion of the loan attributed to the deceased borrower can be discharged. If you meet these requirements, you are eligible to receive up to 100% of your remaining balance discharged. In addition, payments made on behalf of the borrower after the borrower’s death will be refunded. You must send an original or certified copy of the death certificate (or a photocopy of either) to all of the borrower’s loan holders to discharge the loans.

Total and Permanent Disability (TPD)

A physician must certify that the borrower is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a physical or mental impairment. This impairment must be expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of at least 60 months, or it must have already lasted for a continuous period of at least 60 months. The Secretary of Veteran Affairs (VA) can also certify the borrower to be unemployable due to a service connected disability. Effective July 1, 2013, borrowers may be eligible for discharge if they have been certified as disabled by the Social Security Administration (SSA) where the notice of award for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits indicates that the borrower’s next scheduled disability review will be within 5-7 years.

Any remaining balance on your federal student loans will be discharged from the date that your physician certifies your application. If the VA certified your application, any federal student loan amounts owed after the date of the service-related injury will be discharged. If you were approved due to the SSA determination, any remaining balance on your federal student loans would be discharged as of the date the SSA determination is received by the Department of Education on or after July 1, 2013. You must return any disbursements made after the TPD certification approval within 120 days.[14]

Further Resources

Christa McGill. “Educational Debt and Law Student Failure to Enter Public Service Careers: Bringing Empirical Data to Bear,” 31 Law and Social Inquiry 677, 698-701 (2006).

ABA Commission on Loan Repayment & Forgiveness, “Lifting the Burden: Law Student Debt as a Barrier to Public Service,” 9 (2003).

Equal Justice Works Student Debt Relief: equaljusticeworks.org/ed-debt

National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project:


Institute for College Access & Success Project on Student Debt: projectonstudentdebt.org

The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual: http://strikedebt.org/The-Debt-Resistors-Operations-Manual.pdf

The Strike Debt Organizing Kit: strikedebt.org/Strike-Debt-Organizing-Kit.pdf

Cancel All Student Debt: cancelallstudentdebt.com

[1] William D. Henderson and Rachel M. Zahorsky, “The Law School Bubble: How Long Will It Last if Law Grads Can’t Pay Bills?” ABA Journal (January 2012).

[2] “Addressing the Justice Gap,” New York Times, August 24, 2011. Available at:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/24/opinion/addressing-the-justice-gap.html.

[3] Brian Z Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, 108.

[4] Ibid, 78.

[5] Ibid, 99-100.

[6] Abiel Wong, “Boalt-ing” Opportunity?: Deconstructing Elite Norms in Law School Admissions,” 6 Geo. J. on Poverty L. & Pol’y214, 231-32.

[7] Roger Geiger and Donald Heller, Financial Trends in Higher Education (Pennsylvania State University, 2011).

[8] John Quintero, “The Great Cost Shift,” 17 (March 2012).

[9] Project on Student Debt, 2011. Available at: projectonstudentdebt.org.

[10] Malcolm Harris, “Bad Education,” N+1, April 25, 2011. Available at: www.nplusonemag.com/bad-education.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Please be aware that these programs are subject to change. For the most up to date information, consultstudentaid.ed.gov or whichever agency administers your loans.

Resisting the Psychological Effects of Law School
By Will Pasley, UC Hastings NLG Graduate

[Download as PDF]

Lawyers are among the most depressed and distressed professionals; the law school environment trains students to maintain lives that promote depression and anxiety.[2] Qualities that contribute to depression include: isolation, extreme anxiety, a loss of personal priorities, a sense of helplessness about how we are judged, lack of balance between work and the rest of life, and an environment that drastically reduces self-esteem while promoting hyper-competition.  These attributes contribute to the negative view of lawyers. Since people often rise to the expectations other people hold of them, many of us are sucked into a life we despise. Unfortunately, this role includes the negative implicit qualities of lawyers. As more individuals increasingly adopt them, the more others feel pressured to follow suit.  Pressures that cause shifts in identity 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 and alienation.

This section outlines the aspects of law school that contribute to the negative features of the lawyer identity, especially the high rates of anxiety, stress, competition, and isolation.  Indeed, there is evidence that the emotional trauma of law school follows lawyers into their professional life, contributing to high rates of substance abuse and depression.[3] We need to understand why law school is such a painful experience and the consequences it has on our lives and society so that we can generate creative solutions that will make law schools less traumatic.  The insights discussed below are based on a review of the legal education literature, my personal observations as a law student, and a series of interviews conducted in late September and October 2011 among students at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.

Negative Effects of Law School

Numerous studies have explored the negative consequences of law school on students, patterns that are not mirrored in other graduate school populations.[4] In Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression, Todd and Elizabeth Peterson delve into this body of literature to explain why law students are excessively anxious, stressed, and depressed.  The authors bring startling figures to light: 44% of law students have clinically elevated levels of distress.  Levels of substance abuse among law students also tend to be significantly higher than the general population. This pattern continues past graduation, with 70% of lawyers developing alcohol problems at some point in their lifetime.[5]  Research suggests that the culture of competition and conformity is a possible cause of student distress and a primary cause of the failure of legal education reform.  One study explains that this culture affects how students see the law and themselves as lawyers as well as how they interact with other students.  This culture has developed from the incentive structures, dominant pedagogy, job application process, and three “mismatches” of the law school environment.  These mismatches are (1) between student idealism (why they came to law school) and what they still mostly study in the identity forming first year (the pedagogical mismatch); (2) between what students are taught and what young lawyers say was most useful about their legal education (the training mismatch); and (3) between the scope of legal need, the range of advocacy work and the career path of law school graduates, especially at elite institutions (the professionalism mismatch).[6]

Among the more insidious effects of legal education is the disaggregation of intellectual, personal and professional identities.  This develops because students are not given context for their academic pursuits or offered opportunities to connect their studies to their professional development or personal goals.  This, of course, causes students to lose interest in classes and creates an “asymmetry between the classroom and job search process.” The authors are adamant that a focus on changing student culture is necessary for any institutional and curricular changes to be effective.[7]

Identity loss—the shift away from one’s own values and self-perception that many students experience in law school—is addressed in several articles by Lawrence Krieger.  He argues that while in law school students lose touch with who they are and adopt an institutionally-created identity.  Student values change considerably during their time in law school, precipitating a loss of internal motivation. These changes cause distress and a drop in self-esteem and happiness. All of these changes result from the intense pressure placed on students.[8]  This change in values and motivations is also noted in Elisabeth Mertz’s anthro-linguistic study, which partially examines how the structure of language affects law students.  Mertz finds that the discourse in law school pushes students away from public interest topics, primarily because the pedagogy prioritizes authority over ethics.  The process of “thinking like a lawyer” emphasizes the logical and practical reasoning of the legal arguments and downplays or ignores the ethical side of the situation.[9]

Numerous studies show that the law school experience produces serious negative psychological effects on students, including high rates of anxiety, stress, depression, and substance abuse. The experience of law students at UC Hastings highlights how this process takes place as well as some possible reasons that the culture of law school can have a damaging effect on the lives of students.

Experience of Students at UC Hastings

My own experience suggests that the perceived norms of a group, the stories we tell about ourselves and the cumulative experiences we share, have a large impact on how we perceive ourselves. We tell stories about lawyers fighting the good fight, being honest, professional, and aiding clients in need. But we also tell stories of cynicism, backstabbing and prioritizing money. Unfortunately, perceived norms have a tendency to become reified into actual norms. If we expect the majority of our peers to act a certain way it becomes more difficult to act differently even when we strongly disagree with such behavior.

When I arrived at Hastings, my class was told that we were now lawyers and needed to act like it.  We were told to be ethical and professional, and that there was a tendency in our profession to do unjust and underhanded things.  However, the details of what it means to be ethical and professional in the context of practicing law were never filled in.  We are expected, I assume, to figure it out for ourselves, in addition to a professional responsibility class we take toward the end of our education. We are actively forming our perceptions of what it means to be a lawyer from the beginning of our law school experience and a single class is not necessarily enough to affect the inertia of the lawyer schema we have spent years mentally constructing.

The lawyer schema, like any socially-constructed category, is multi-faceted and contains elements we subconsciously use to ease the process of understanding reality.[10] These elements can range from behavior patterns to dress.  For example, if I asked what lawyers wear, most people would say business attire or a suit.  That is part of the schema we look to when we fit people into the lawyer category.  This section addresses the facets of the law school environment and culture that law students experience, how those facets affect the way that law students perceive lawyers, and in turn, how students feel pressured to behave and think. This behavioral training reverberates through the entire legal profession.[11] Aspects of this training include pressure to adopt certain motivations and priorities, high levels of stress and anxiety, hyper-competition, isolation, and low self-esteem.


Part of the reason law school becomes such a source of anxiety is because of the perceived high stakes. The prospect of being saddled with debt for a decade or more frightens many students into believing that the only way to achieve the life they envision for themselves is to get a high paying job regardless of whether that job has any connection to the reasons they decided to attend law school, because it is a necessity to pay off loans. The fear is that if our grades are not high enough, we won’t secure a job that pays sufficiently (or a job at all) and we won’t be able to live comfortably or even stay above water.  Everyone takes note that there have to be people who are at the bottom end of the curve, and that possible placement is a constant concern for many people. The anxiety about grades that permeates the Hastings atmosphere is often palpable and not only pushes students into an unhealthy, overworked lifestyle, but can cause them to abandon their interests and beliefs.  This undermines their sense of who they are.  One source of this anxiety that came up repeatedly in my interviews was the small amount and quality of feedback students receive about how they are doing with their studies, especially in relation to their fellow students.

Comparing oneself to other students is currently the main source of feedback for students at Hastings during the semester. Several informants described how in awe and terrified they were by what some people said in their classes.  During my first semester, I saw this in myself.  I compared myself to other people in terms of how much I studied, the quality of what was said in class, the response of the professor to what was said in class, and how well others seemed to understand the law. This felt unhealthy to me and I decided I had to stop these thoughts by developing a mental habit whenever I experienced that kind of thinking. I would remind myself that I am not buying into the competitive atmosphere and would affirm myself. While utilizing that mental habit helped me escape some of the competitive energy, I still craved feedback.

There is a certain escalation that goes on when students compare themselves to others in terms of amount worked.  I saw people reading numerous supplements and spending hours and hours working, far more than what I was doing.  I certainly felt pressured to work more, beyond what was healthy for me, in addition to what classes required me to do. It is like an arms race.  Your opponent gets a supplement, so you have to as well. Your opponent spends their entire weekend working, then you have to one-up them. So you dip into the only time you have left—the time you sleep. Several informants mentioned the problem of using Adderall, cocaine, and other stimulants at Hastings to get more work done. In law school, people take stimulants so they can work longer, harder and faster because they feel as though doing more signifies that they are understanding the material and doing better than their competitors.  After all, grades are on a curve, and no one wants to be seen as and feel like the cushion at the bottom, especially when it comes with such a perceived dire consequence.


Due to the curve, grades are an artificially scarce resource, meaning that my good grade depends on my classmates getting bad grades. Students at Hastings are painfully aware of this fact. Competition over this scarce resource is likely the reason that during my first year orientation we were admonished not to tear pages out of law books. The grading system is seen as nebulous and arbitrary. To a large extent, students are told that grades are based on how well you know the law, but my grades do not reflect how well I think I understand the law. This has played both to my benefit and my detriment.  There is a skill to taking exams, a skill which is not taught in class and is of no apparent use in the world of practice. Part of the competition is learning the exam-taking skill outside of class. While academic support services offers crash courses in exam-taking, the private sector also preys upon anxious law students.  For example, take a look at this excerpt from a hyperbolic mass advertisement that went to first year students:


Law exams confuse everyone! LSAT score, hard work – almost irrelevant!  Those who do well are merely less inept than classmates. Simple fact – law school and all other sources do a poor job instructing how lawyers think, analyze, and address legal problems.  Nor has anyone but LEEWS figured out how, systematically, any and all essay exam hypos can be broken down and addressed in concise, impressive paragraphs under time pressure (roughly one per issue).  As a consequence, LEEWS is bound to improve performance and vault you ahead of clueless classmates.

While this is clearly a snake-oil salesman situation, most students feel as though they have to go above and beyond what is taught in class to get a good grade.  This extreme pressure to out-compete other students makes them susceptible to this kind of exploitation. Most students interviewed explicitly stated that they felt as though there wasn’t a correlation between their ability with the law, the amount of work they invested, and their grade. I certainly feel that way.  As a 2L, I decided to put this hypothesis to the test. One experiment I conducted was in Criminal Procedure:  I did about one class’s worth of reading for the class. I did go to every class and pay attention, but I did not do the reading. I studied someone’s outline from the previous year, and updated it based on my notes from class. It was a closed book exam, and I memorized the law well enough to satisfy my standards. I got a B, which was much better than some of my first semester grades where I thought I knew the law just as well. I repeated this experiment the next semester with Corporations, which also had a closed book exam. I did about one class’s worth of reading, went to every class, and updated an old outline. I memorized the law well enough for my standards, and I got an A-. I felt I knew the material as well as Criminal Procedure, yet I got a much better grade. I cannot explain why I did better in Corporations, nor can I explain why I did better than people who got below a B, many of whom I am sure put significantly more effort into their work. This experiment has reinforced my belief in the inherent arbitrariness of grades, and made me feel much less in control of what grades I receive.

There is a complex interaction between the implicit qualities discussed so far. Lack of feedback, shifted priorities, the perceived high stakes of grades and competition produce the “frenzied environment” that we find at Hastings and other law schools. Lack of institutional feedback tends to result in people creating their own feedback, and using each other as a guide.  Consistent, critical self-comparison to others amplifies the competition which is already emphasized by the grading system. The perceived high stakes that grades represent puts extreme pressure on students, increasing the level of stress.  This creates a situation in which hundreds of people go into an upward spiral of pushing themselves to work harder, longer, and faster to out-compete everyone else for the scarce resource of high grades. The resource is then allocated seemingly arbitrarily and not necessarily based on any feedback that has been given. This cycle creates isolation and a self-esteem roller-coaster that undermines the confidence and mental health of students at Hastings.  This situation produces anti-social behavior, low self-esteem, and mental health problems as an implicit element in a lawyer’s identity.


One of the most troubling implicit qualities of a lawyer is alienation from other people.  This was a universally mentioned aspect of law school among interviewees. While some had developed a few good friendships, in general they felt isolated from other people. The competition and anxiety push students apart and train us not to trust each other. Instead we try to figure out how to out-do others, and form small cliques of friends who “can have our backs.”

Isolation develops because we are worked very hard and pressured by both the grading system and the student culture to compete with each other to an extreme degree.  The level of stress can make it difficult to connect with strangers, because students often just don’t have the energy. That is not to say that students do not make friends: cliques are common, but it has been my observation that in law school people think they have fewer friends and they feel less connected to them than in other environments. The majority of students don’t show the true depth of themselves to each other. I remember an admonition my class received during orientation: “Make friends now in these first few weeks, because once the semester gets going, people won’t have the time or inclination.” That warning was an accurate assessment of the social dynamics I saw during my first semester.

One of the most effective ways I found to mitigate the tendency to become isolated in law school is to join a group of like-minded people who can help provide a community and keep you focused on the ideals that brought you to law school in the first place. Joining or reviving a NLG chapter at your school is one way to counter the isolation that can easily occur during law school.

Self-Esteem Roller-Coaster

The seasons of law school are varied, and intricately tied to grades and grade anxiety. Many students feel like failures every grade season. Of course, many students doubt the validity of grades and try not to tie their self-esteem to exam outcomes. But not everyone is successful and simply getting one C+ can be devastating. Because students believe that their future worth as employees will be judged by these grades, a low grade carries an implicit message of unworthiness. This is especially frustrating in light of the belief in the arbitrariness of the grading system.

Other interviewees described a similar situation, where they felt a blow to their self-esteem when they got their grades and when they compared themselves to other students. The culture and dynamics at Hastings generates extreme amounts of self-criticism, lowering our self-esteem. After the melancholies of the first two semesters, the roller coaster flies up with the sense of pride for completing the first year and surviving. Almost all the upper division students I have interviewed mentioned that feeling. Surviving law school is an accomplishment and one of which we are proud.  But that is only one of the threshold questions that employers look at when filtering us out.  As time passes after this accomplishment, the roller coaster starts up again.


The reasons students come to law school are often replaced with the generic priorities of law school (e.g. grades, getting on journals, high status internships).  This is more pronounced in students who have spent less time defining themselves, their passions and their ideals.  Students who come to law school with a sense of how they will fit into the lawyer role are able to reject the parts they do not like and maintain the valuable aspects of themselves that law school suppresses. Students who have more knowledge about themselves, who have a clear conception of who they are and why they want a law degree are more resilient in the face of the pressures of the atmosphere at law schools. Unfortunately, most law schools do not offer much guidance or opportunity for the development of self-knowledge.

However, it is encouraging to note that several people described a certain point in their law school career, an epiphany where: 1) they realized that they did not have to agonize over grades (they still cared about grades, just not to an unhealthy extent); 2) that they had to prioritize their health and well-being over their grades and; 3) that they did not have to buy into the pack mentality of the student body at Hastings. Helping students to recognize this earlier in their law school career by openly discussing these issues could go a long way toward reducing anxiety and producing healthier and happier lawyers. Practices such as establishing restorative circles, teaching meditation, and creating alternative curriculum programs can aid in this effort, as can any other drive to develop self-knowledge among the student population.

I am sure my experience at Hastings is not unique among law schools; indeed, people from many other law schools have confirmed that this is a common experience.  But it need not be this way; we can change it! Simply creating a more caring, team-oriented environment would also have a lasting impact. Establishing and emphasizing positive role models is another important method, as it gives an alternative aspiration for law students to construct their identities around. Changing the grading and teaching practices of legal education would also help to ameliorate the worst consequences of law school as it is currently set up. More on these topics will be found in Part 2 of the manual: Alternatives.

Further Resources
Peterson, Todd and Elizabeth Peterson, “Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology” (2008). GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 448.

Sturm, Susan P. and Guinier, Lani, The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity. Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 60, No. 2, p. 515, 547. 2007

Sheldon, Kennon and Lawrence Krieger, “Does Legal Education have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being” (2004) Behav. Sci. Law 22: 261–286.

Patrick Schiltz. “On being a happy, healthy, and ethical member of an unhappy, unhealthy, unethical profession,” Vand Law Review (1999).

Matthew M. Dammeyer and Narina Nunez, “Anxiety and Depression Among Law Students: Current Knowledge and Future Directions,” 23 Law & Hum. Behav. 55 (1999).

Connie J.A. Beck, et. al., “Lawyer Distress: Alcohol-Related Problems and Other Psychological Concerns Among a Sample of Practicing Lawyers,” 10 J.L. & Health 1, 1 (1995-96).

Daniel N. McIntosh et al., “Stress and Health in First-Year Law Students: Women Fare Worse,” 24 J. Applied Soc. Psychol.1474 (1994).

B. A. Glesner, “Fear and Loathing in the Law Schools,” 23 Conn. L. Rev. 627 (1991).

G. Andrew H. Benjamin, et. al., “The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress Among Law Students and Lawyers,” Law & Social Inquiry, Volume 11, Issue 2, pages 225–252, (April 1986).

[1] This section is based on a longer ethnographic article on Hastings Law. If you would like a copy of the paper, or you just want to talk about these issues, please feel free to email will.pasley@gmail.com.

[2] Todd and Elizabeth Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology (2008); GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 448; Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2009; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 448.

[3] Peterson and Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression.

[4] Benjamin, Kazniak, Sales & Shanfield (1986). The role of legal education in producing psychological distress

among law students and lawyers.  American Bar Foundation Research Journal, 1986, 225-252.;

Sheldon, Kennon M.and Lawrence Krieger, J.D, “Does Legal Education have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being” (2004) Behav. Sci. Law 22: 261–286; B.A. Glesner,  Fear and Loathing in the Law School,  23 Connecticut Law Review 627-68 (1991).

[5] Peterson and Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression.

[6] Susan P. Sturm and Guinier, Lani, “The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity,” Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 60, No. 2, p. 515, 547. 2007; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 07-155; Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 07-23.

[7] Ibid, 22.

[8] Lawrence Krieger, “Roasting the Seeds of Law School Stress,” Journal of College and Character, Vol. 5, Issue 8 (2004); Lawrence S. Krieger, “Human Nature as a New Guiding Philosophy for Legal Education and the Profession,” March 5, 2008. Washburn Law Journal, Vol. 47, p. 101, 2008; FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper.

[9] Elisabeth Mertz, “Teaching Lawyers the Language of Law: Legal and Anthropological Translations,” 34 J. Marshall L. Rev. 91 (2000).

[10] Linda Hamilton Krieger, “The Content of Our Categories: A Cognitive Bias Approach to Discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity,” 47 Stan. L. Rev. 1161-1202.

[11] Benjamin, Kazniak, Sales & Shanfield (1986). The role of legal education in producing psychological distress among law students and lawyers.  American Bar Foundation Research Journal, 1986, 225-252.;

Sheldon, Kennon M. and Lawrence Krieger, J.D Does Legal Education have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being  (2004) Behav. Sci. Law 22: 261–286; B.A. Glesner,  Fear and Loathing in the Law School,  23 Connecticut Law Review 627-68 (1991)

How to Start (or Revive) a NLG Chapter at Your School
By Whitney Leeds, University of Colorado NLG Graduate
and NLG National Student Vice President (2012-13)

[Download as PDF]

Many students stress the value of collaboration with like-minded peers during law school as both a vital coping mechanism as well as a tool to advance their social justice goals. While some law schools have more activists than others, even very conservative schools have a small group of people looking to use their legal skills to help people. Finding or starting an NLG chapter at your school is one way to create a community that will offer social support, introduce you to a network of legal activists within and beyond your law school, and help you organize for change at your law school.

Law students currently represent one-third of Guild membership and over 120 law schools have NLG chapters already established. Law students take part in every level of decision-making in the organization and are represented nationally by two elected student representatives. Students also serve on the steering committees of local chapters and as representatives on Guild committees and projects. Students meet annually at the student caucus of the NLG convention, where they work with the Student Coordinator and Student National Vice Presidents to set a national agenda for NLG students each year. Throughout the year, students from across the country collaborate to plan national campaigns and days of action.

To find out if your school has an active chapter, check the list of law schools and contacts on the NLG website. If you are uncertain of the status of the NLG at your school, contact the National Office for more information. If your school does not have a NLG chapter, or if the chapter has become defunct, the National Office can help you start or revive a chapter. We have numerous resources on our website, including a chapter start-up kit and checklist, an organizing guide for student chapters, sample bylaws and constitutions, sample budget applications, fliers to help with recruiting, and materials for tabling.

This section offers suggestions for starting/reviving a chapter based on the experiences of the University of Colorado chapter, as well as a list of best practices for chapter organizing drawn from the NLG “Beyond Disorientation” Guide written by previous Student Organizer Michel Martinez.[1] Remember that the NLG National Student Organizer is always available and ready to help![2]

Lessons Learned at the University of Colorado

For many of us, especially those who entered a law school without an active Guild chapter, the process of indoctrination in legal education can be one of the more alienating and dehumanizing experiences of our lives. One of the aims in this section, and in starting a Guild chapter itself, is to equip students with a method of coping with legal education that allows them both to stay true to their principles and to exercise their social justice muscles.

Before reading this list of suggestions based on the revival of the University of Colorado NLG chapter, keep in mind that there are many ways to start or revive a student chapter, and this is merely one of them. The order of tasks listed is flexible, as is the composition of the list itself. In writing this section, we by no means intend to prescribe the method you choose; this is merely meant as a guidepost. And as always, if you have questions about starting or reviving your chapter, get in touch with the Student Organizer in the National Office or with your Student National Vice Presidents. GOOD LUCK!

If you are starting or reviving a NLG chapter:

  • Find a faculty advisor and make sure to follow your school’s procedures for starting a student organization.Each school has its own unique policies and procedures for new student organizations, so make sure to visit the Dean’s Office, the Head of Student Affairs, and the Student Bar Association to make sure you are following the correct steps. Additionally, if you are unable to pinpoint a faculty member who may be a good candidate for faculty advisor, reach out to the National Office or your local NLG chapter for help.
  • Get in touch with the student organizer at the National Office and let them know you are interested in starting/reviving a chapter. The National Office will send you a package of materials to get started; it is also a great resource for navigating the complexities of building a student chapter. Contact information for the National Office as well as a number of resources are available on student page of the NLG website.
  • Reach out to the local NLG chapter near you. NLG chapters are present in most cities and states, and students starting law school chapters should reach out to attorney and legal worker members nearby. Local NLG members are often great resources for students and can help move along the process of solidifying a new student chapter. They also may be able to help find a suitable faculty advisor, give presentations on Guild-related topics, and act as mentors for NLG students. NLG members are usually thrilled to get involved with the next generation of movement lawyers. If you are having trouble getting in touch with your local chapter, contact the National Office.
  • Hold a Disorientation at the beginning of the fall and/or spring semester. Disorientation is an event the NLG has been putting on for decades to introduce new law students to the Guild, to educate them about “people’s lawyering,” and to impress upon them the importance of maintaining their values and critical analysis throughout law school. The materials for Disorientation can be obtained by contacting the Student Organizer, and the current Disorientation Manual can be downloaded for free on the NLG website. The National Office and your local chapter can help you organize Disorientation events with NLG speakers and materials.
  • Become a part of your local community. One way to make your NLG chapter strong is to become a part of the local community. More specifically, it can be a great boon to the chapter to be connected to local grassroots organizations and movement leaders. By fostering bonds with local organizations and activists, the chapter can:
    • Use the opportunity to network within local movements
    • Learn from movement leaders
    • Hold speaking events with movement leaders on assorted topics
    • Carry out campaigns relevant to issues affecting the local community
    • Become part of the movement. [3]
  • Build relationships with movement movers and shakers. This could have been included in the previous bullet, but it’s important enough to warrant an individual listing. In many instances, it is easy to identify the most outspoken and prominent leaders in different movements. These are often terrific individuals to bring to campus to talk with students about issues impacting local communities. They are also great resources if you are interested in starting a campaign. The important thing is to be open-minded about how you may use your relationships with these leaders to build the chapter and the movement.
  • Bring as many of your members as you can to regional and national NLG conferences. It’s difficult to get to know a national organization solely through local interaction. National and regional conferences help students better understand the Guild and its work, their opportunities as Guild members, and how to get involved.  Additionally, it cannot be overstated the extent to which being surrounded by social justice-minded peers can hearten and re-energize one’s work. It also allows a space to prepare national and regional campaigns, network with lawyers, law students, and legal workers who are working on similar issues, and get educated about new issues. And of course, it’s a great avenue for networking!
  • Start a campaign. Once the chapter has a solid core of dedicated students, the time may be ripe to begin a campaign. There are many methods to go about structuring a campaign, but the following is one (albeit skeletal) suggestion:
    • Meet with the chapter to discern what they are most interested in working on
    • From those areas of interest, identify goals of potential campaigns
    • Gauge whether and which of those goals are SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. It’s often also helpful to come up with a timeline, like deciding to make the campaign last one semester, one year, two years, etc.
    • Decide on a campaign, and follow through with it
    • Celebrate your successes—even minor ones—with a happy hour, pot luck, sing-along, or other social event to re-energize the group and harness its energy into another successful campaign
    • There is also a wealth of resources on structuring and carrying out a successful campaign. For further guidance, check with the National Office or online.
  • Acknowledge the need for balance between school work and activism. While it is beneficial to continue to organize and work for social justice causes while in law school, it is equally important to spend enough time focused on assigned work as well as applying for internships, fellowships, and jobs. To avoid burnout of NLG law school members, be sure to match the goals of the group with the people and resources available. Make sure that everyone has clear tasks that are within their capabilities and be careful not to let the bulk of work fall onto a few members. As a general rule, 1Ls should not be given a lot of responsibility until they have adjusted to law school.
  • Empower the next generation of students. Oftentimes chapters are spearheaded by one exuberant personality, and after they graduate the chapter falls back into remission. Though enthusiasm should be encouraged, in the interest of sustainability, it’s important to pass on that energy. This means educating newer students about the Guild, local social movements, and chapter building, as well as empowering them to take leadership roles within the chapter. Get to know new students to the Guild, and when you find out their main areas of interest, make sure they know how to reach out to those Guild committees. If the students have difficulty connecting with members of the committee, advise them to reach out to the National Office.
  • Take concrete steps as a 2L and 3L to keep your chapter from becoming defunct upon your departure. Identify 1Ls and 2Ls who might be potential leaders of the chapter and mentor them on chapter building. Introduce newer members to the contacts you’ve made both in the local Guild as well as in local social movements, in person if possible. Create a list of these contacts to give to newer members so that those connections aren’t lost, making sure to alert individuals on the list to the fact that they may be contacted by other law students. Invite newer members to spearhead projects or campaigns. Make sure responsibilities are spread out among more experienced and newer members.
  • Join the NLG! To become a member of the national organization, students are required to officially join and pay dues ($20-50 sliding scale). It is very important to actually take the step of joining. Membership includes access to NLG committees and projects, fellowships, mentorship programs, publications, trainings, conventions, listservs, and more! You can join online through the NLG website or by sending in a hard copy of the membership form included in the back of the Disorientation Manual.[4]

Best Practices for NLG Student Chapter Organizing

By Michel Martinez, NLG Student Organizer (2009-11)

General Suggestions

  • Have a kick‐off party to start the year right and a farewell party to end it right
  • Recruit constantly! Continually promote the Guild, your chapter, projects, and the idea of radical lawyering
  • Find a good advisor: Someone who’s communicative, supportive, resourceful, and politically active
  • Be self‐reliant and self‐motivated as a chapter, but open to and supportive of coalition projects and events
  • Where possible, include graduate and undergraduate students (especially pre‐law society folks) to broaden your impact
  • Carefully and realistically adapt the number of your activities to the size and resources of your chapter

Organizing, Networking, Recruiting

  • Build a strong team of core members, student allies, and supporters in the school’s administration
  • Encourage diversity among chapter officers; encourage people of color to take leadership positions
  • Be sure your chapter is officially recognized by campus administration
  • Openly recognize solid efforts and congratulate successes of members
  • Maintain a calendar of tasks, current contacts list, and open communication
  • Plan a social event: Bar Review, Coffee Hour, Potluck, Bowling, Hiking, Snowboard Trip, Movie Night
  • Generate funds for chapter activities, e.g. sending members to the NLG convention
  • Maintain a webpage and/or Facebook page
  • Submit an article about your work and chapter to Guild Notes, the national NLG Newsletter
  • Interact with members and officers of other chapters through the listservs and blogs

Providing Radical Lawyering & Public Interest Law Training, Education, Exposure

  • Set up a Radical Lawyering Public Interest Law Day or mini‐conference
  • Set up a mentorship program with the local Guild chapter or local radical lawyers
  • Publicize internships, job openings, and fellowships with progressive organizations
  • Organize Student Seminars, debates, awareness‐weeks, symposia, or faculty research/clinical presentations
  • Organize a Speaker Series around a theme, presenting practical and theoretical examinations of the issues
  • Organize field trips to law offices, court arguments, government hearings, council sessions, etc.
  • Invite NLG alumni or local chapter members to speak

Promoting Participation & Interaction with the NLG at large

  • Encourage people to become official members of the NLG and its committees—this assures that they receive, at minimum, the latest NLG news, job openings, opportunities for involvement, and publications
  • Participate in related conferences and community workshops as a Guild delegate/in the name of the NLG
  • Take leadership roles in the Guild at the local, regional, national, or committee level
  • Invite local Guild members to campus as speakers
  • Hold a NLG membership drive at your law school

Promotion & Nomination for Student Awards

  • NLG’s C.B. King Award (AKA Law Student of the Year award)
  • Create a Law Student or Activist of the Year award for your own campus

Service Activities

  • As a group, fundraise for charity, volunteer in disaster areas, at women’s shelters, or with Food Not Bombs
  • Bring the NLG to local schools through Street Law, Know Your Rights, or Counter‐Recruiting workshops

Further Resources

Law Student page of the NLG website.

“Beyond Disorientation: An Organizing Guide for Guild Students.” 

Bill Quigley, “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice” and “Reflections of Community Organizers: Lawyering for Empowerment of Community Organizations.”

[1] This list is taken from the NLG’s “Beyond Disorientation: An Organizing Guide for Guild Students,” written by previous Student Organizer Michel Martinez. The full guide is available on the NLG website and includes detailed information on officers and chapter structure, recruitment, events and projects, publicity, fundraising, and ideas for chapter organizing. It also contains an organizing calendar to help you stay on track during the year.

[2] To contact the current NLG Student Organizer, Traci Yoder, send an email to traci@nlg.org.

[3] Keep in mind that law students and lawyers are often given a level of authority within a movement based on their education that is undeserved and needs to be checked in order to avoid hampering the movement itself. To better understand this precarious position it may be helpful to read Bill Quigley’s, “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice” and “Reflections of Community Organizers: Lawyering for Empowerment of Community Organizations.”

[4] Please note: Individuals who live in or around New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, or in Michigan or Massachusetts, must pay dues directly to their chapters. If you have any questions about your membership, contact the Student Organizer.

Mindfulness and the Law
By Jean Stevens, CUNY NLG Graduate and NLG Student National Vice President (2012-14)

[Download as PDF]

Many studies have shown, and this manual has detailed, that the experience of law school and the legal profession are known to produce anxiety, stress, high rates of substance abuse, and feelings of competitiveness and isolation.[1] There are ways for students currently in law school to deal with the immediate stress and to relate to their law school experience in a way that is more healthy and grounding. A growing movement examines the links between the law, mindfulness, and contemplative practice as a way to benefit legal professionals as well as the clients they serve.

What is the contemplative lawyering movement?

In October 2010, Berkeley School of Law held the first national conference for a growing movement of legal practitioners, The Mindful Lawyer: Practices & Prospects for Law School, Bench, and Bar.[2] Co-sponsored by the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School, the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the University of Florida Levin College of Law, the event attracted a crowd of nearly 200 professors, judges, lawyers and students. They were all drawn by a compelling question: Why are lawyers, law students and legal workers so miserable, and how can this change? “Our adversarial justice system […] is currently a source of great violence and rupture for people attempting to resolve conflict within that structure. Whether divorce, personal injury, facing social injustice or criminal prosecution, the experience of many within our legal system does not create healing, reconciliation, understanding, forgiveness and love for those it serves. Neither does it support those traits in those who work within it, a fact that contributes to the unhappiness and alienation of so many lawyers.”[3]

Change to this system, conference attendees and others in the contemplative lawyering movement believe, lies in creating a new vision for legal education and work. Based on mindfulness, meditation and contemplative practice, this vision aims to transform the law from a culture of alienation, competition, depression, and addiction into one of compassion, shared struggle, support and satisfaction. The movement thus far has been primarily based in various pockets of law schools nationwide. CUNY Law School began its Contemplative Urban Law Program (CCULP) in fall 2001, followed by the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law’s Initiative on Mindfulness in Law and Dispute Resolution.[4] Other schools introduced similar initiatives into their curriculum or campus programming, convinced that such programs will help to reduce the inevitable deep stress that arises in legal work, to provide an outlet, and to explore concepts of restorative justice and healing. An estimated 12 to 20 law schools now offer mindfulness courses, and mindfulness techniques are being integrated into negotiation, professional responsibility and other courses.[5] In 2011, two institutions that had been offering mindfulness classes launched broader efforts: the University of Miami School of Law began the Mindfulness in Law Program and the University of California at Berkeley launched the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness in Law. “For many years, [mindfulness in the law] was there, it was alive and well, but it was little pockets here and there without any real conversation being had across these pockets,” says Scott Rogers, founder and director of the Mindfulness in Law Program at Miami Law. “Then people began to come together.”[6]
Some have joined an initiative called “Humanizing Legal Education,” designed to explore “ways legal education is conducted, the impact those choices may have on the attitudes, values, health and well-being of law students, and the possible relationship between each of those matters and the problems experienced by our graduates in the profession” through courses, web discussion, conferences and research.[7] Studies have shown that new law students arrive to law school with certain service oriented values in place, but as their schooling proceeds, they go through a “grieving” process and resign themselves to change, ending law school with a loss of ideals and “less adaptive” values.[8]

The movement even came to the mainstream establishment through the American Bar Association. The ABA Journal claims that at least a dozen bar associations have programs related to mindfulness, and cites programs including the DC Area Contemplative Law Group and the Mindfulness in Law Joint Task Force in South Florida.[9] The New York City Bar Association maintains a City Bar Contemplative Lawyers Group. These groups host workshops and classes on effective relationships, processing stress and emotions, and developing deeper meditation skills. Such mainstream acceptance demonstrates not only the undeniable benefits and transformative value of contemplative practice, but the deep need throughout the community for a transformation of legal practice.

Mindfulness 101 — Nuts and Bolts

So what are meditation, mindfulness and contemplative practice? Meditation is the process of quieting the mind, usually by sitting with eyes closed, focusing on the inhale and exhale of the breath, and allowing thoughts to pass through one’s mind without judgment or contemplation.[10] One may also meditate through other activities, such as walking slowly, focusing deeply on each step and the breath, or by mindful eating, chewing each bite very slowly while paying close attention to the flavors and textures of the food. Meditation is just one of many forms of “contemplative practice.”[11] Contemplative practice is an umbrella term for behaviors and activities, engaged in by people in different forms worldwide, that allow for “deep reflection”[12] of one’s mind to “cultivate a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, while at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations.”[13] Rather than a skill, these activities are a practice. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society states that meditation, with regular practice, allows one to develop more creativity and wisdom, a sensitive and realistic sense of ethics, focus and stability, patience and sustainability, and compassion and empathy.[14]Mindfulness is a state of mind, an intentional commitment to observing the present moment, to be “mindful” of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes in a moment, and the emotional response to all of those stimuli in that moment.

Recent research suggests that the benefits of meditation do not arise from a placebo effect, but result from actual changes in the brain. Four studies in 2012 alone showed that long-time meditators, compared to non-meditators, showed greater creativity, reduced overall risk of heart attack and stroke, reshaped brains in a way to allow for faster information processing, and reduced stress in multitasking test.[15] Scientists have also found that improved regulation of emotion, known to arise while meditating, also exists when someone is not actively meditating thanks to reduced response in the amygdala, which controls emotion.[16] Several previous studies have supported the hypothesis that meditation training improves practitioners’ emotional regulation.

In the legal context, “it is a method to remain grounded and centered amidst the often contentious and stressful nature of the legal profession.”[17] More legal practitioners are attracted to the idea that such presence, calm and focus may help them to strengthen these qualities and reduce the incredible stress, speed and hostility often present in law.[18] Those who practice meditation claim that it does indeed have a transformative effect on their work.

Contemplative practice: Make it work for you and your school
To feel the benefits of contemplative practice, one must merely set aside some time each day or a few times a week to sit quietly and meditate. Some people prefer to take this time upon waking up in the morning, during a break between classes, or at night before going to sleep. One requires nothing but a tranquil space and a soft cushion or chair (no expense required!). Here are some basic tips to begin:[19]
●       Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the floor, back upright but not stiff, shoulders back but relaxed.

●       Breathe comfortably through your nose. Feel the sensation of your breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils at the tip of your nose. To help focus further on this sensation, inhale deeply and force the air out through your nostrils. Wherever you feel the sensation most clearly and precisely is the place to focus your attention. You may also focus on the rise and fall of your stomach or chest.

●       Feel the beginning, the middle, and the end of every in-breath, and the beginning, the middle, and the end of every out-breath. Notice the pauses in between. Do not worry if the breath is shorter or longer at time, or if it is erratic — there’s no way to breath “wrong.” Just be aware.

●       Every time your attention moves away from the breath and shifts to another sensation, sound, smell or thought, gently but firmly bring your attention back to the touch sensation of your breath. Repeat this, and try not to judge or criticize yourself. It is OK if you start over many times. Bringing your attention back to your breath is the art of being mindful, a skill you are strengthening, and a form of mental discipline.

●       Continue until you reach the end of your time, whether 10, 30 minutes or more. Every bit helps. You may wish to set a gentle alarm to bring you out of your meditative state.

Those who meditate should be kind to themselves—no one does this wrong! Those who feel they do not have enough time should try to identify if there is anything they can do to change their schedule or integrate these tips into their daily train or bus commute to school, after having a meal, or library study break. It may help to listen to a guided meditation available online to stream or download.[20]
Some students find it helpful to form a group of students, staff and faculty at their schools to practice together. A meditation group, called a “sitting group” or “sangha,” often meet a certain time and place and meditate in a quiet room together to support and guide each other. A leader may lead the group in a “guided meditation” to remind people to focus on the breath. The group may also listen to a recorded guided meditation (see Resources below). Students nationwide have also formed formal contemplative practice groups at their school, becoming recognized by the school and hosting talks, workshops and weekly sits.

Contemplative practice as a tool in legal practice
While contemplative practice is primarily discussed as a tool for legal advocates to find peace and clarity in their own lives, it has become a powerful tool to assist clients in reducing pain, in healing, and reducing recidivism. “The Dhamma Brothers,” streaming online, is an amazing documentary of the effect of a 100-hour meditation retreat inside a maximum-security Alabama prison with more than 1,500 incarcerated people.[21]

Studies have shown that meditation programs in prisons have contributed to recidivism and reduce addiction, aggression and anger.[22] In a Washington Post story on one program in a Missouri prison, an instructor said, “This is the magic…No matter how much he or she has sunk down in the mud and dust of his environment, once he has started on this path, the process itself will cleanse him of his stress.”[23] One client, when faced with a plea deal of probation with meditation or jail, chose the former. [24] He said he had no self-control before, but now meditation has changed that.[25]


The incorporation of contemplation, mindfulness, and meditative practices into legal education and the legal profession can help to alleviate and manage the inevitable stress of a legal career. By setting aside time for quiet and reflective practice, law students, attorneys, and legal workers can improve their physical and mental health, process negative emotions, increase their ability to handle stress, and even assist clients. Law schools that are interested in these methods should work together to create the space and time to hold meditation sessions and trainings and tap into the emerging contemplation and the law movement.

Further Resources




Holistic Toolkit: A Holistic Law Student’s Blog: holistictoolkit.com

The Meditative Perspective: http://www.contemplativemind.org/archives/877

Leonard L. Riskin. The Contemplative Lawyer: On the Potential Contributions of Mindfulness Meditation to Law Students, Lawyers, and Their Clients. L. Rev. 1 (2002).

[1] See section in Part 1, Psychological Effects of Law School.

[2] “The Proceedings of the Mindful Lawyer Conference.” Available at: http://www.mindfullawyerconference.org/.

[3] Jeanne Anselmo, “History of CUNY Contemplative Urban Law Program (CCULP). Available at:http://www.aals.org/am2006/program/balance/JeanneHistoryofProgram.pdf.

[4] Linda Lazarus,” A Conversation with Professor Leonard Riskin about Mindfulness, Dispute Resolution, and Mindfulness Resources for Mediators (Part II),” Mediate.com. Available at: http://www.mediate.com/mobile/article.cfm?id=1736.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Becky Beaupre Gillespie, “Mindfulness in Legal Practice Is Going Mainstream,” ABA Journal, February 2013.

[7] “The Florida State University College of Law.” Available at:http://www.law.fsu.edu/academic_programs/humanizing_lawschool/humanizing….

[8] Humanizing Legal Education. Cutting Edge Law. Available at: http://cuttingedgelaw.com/page/humanizing-legal-education.

[9] Gillespie, “Mindfulness in Legal Practice Is Going Mainstream.”

[10] “The Meditative Perspective,” The Law Program for Contemplative Mind in Society. 2009. Available at:http://www.contemplativemind.org/admin/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/The_Me….

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Why Contemplation Matters, and What It Achieves,” Garrison Institute (2009). Available at:http://www.garrisoninstitute.org/why-contemplation-matters.

[13] The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Available at: http://www.contemplativemind.org/about/faq

[14] Contemplative Practices. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Available at:http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices.

[15] Kate Torgovnick, “4 scientific studies on how meditation can affect your heart, brain and creativity,” TED Blog, January 11, 2013.

[16] “Meditation Appears To Produce Enduring Changes in Emotional Processing in the Brain,” Science Daily, November 12, 2012.

[17] The Meditative Perspective.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Modified from Basic Meditation Instructions. April 17, 2013. Available at: http://www.bemindful.org/basicinstru.htm.

[20] Find some guided meditations here: http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/recordings.

[21] “The Dhamma Brothers: East Meets West in the Deep South.” Available at: http://www.dhammabrothers.com/ (live, streaming and more information available on the web site).

[22] Nancy Cambria, “From Incarceration to Meditation in Missouri,” Washington Post, December 14, 2009.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

Engaging in Anti-Oppression Work
By The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) of the NLG and the NLG Anti-Racism Committee

[Download as PDF]

Ending oppression is part and parcel of the Guild’s mission: “Our aim is to bring together all those who recognize the importance of safeguarding and extending the rights of workers, women, LGBTQ people, farmers, people with disabilities and people of color, upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends; who seek actively to eliminate racism; who work to maintain and protect our civil rights and liberties in the face of persistent attacks upon them; and who look upon the law as an instrument for the protection of the people, rather than for their repression.”[1]

Yet having an anti-oppression stance is only a beginning, and the Guild recognizes the importance of actively combating racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of oppression. The purpose of this chapter is to (1) give a basic description of the anti-oppression work of the Guild, (2) to address related law school specific issues, and (3) to provide resources to engage in anti-oppression work in your own chapter. The resources include the Alabama Manifesto and the TUPOCC Pledge, two documents the Guild encourages student chapters to sign onto, as well as information on how to be an ally, reaching out to students of color, and other anti-oppression training resources.

The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC), the Anti-Racism Committee, the Alabama Manifesto, & the TUPOCC Pledge

The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) is an alliance of law students, legal workers, attorneys, and other people of color within the NLG. The necessity of such an organization is borne from the history of the United States where economic power is dependent on the continued subjugation of people of color, poor people women, queers, and other oppressed people.[2]

TUPOCC is a caucus of the Guild, meaning that its membership is open to those who self-identify as people of color. TUPOCC wishes to provide all people of color with opportunities and, when such opportunities are not available, to work with allies to create them. The caucus seeks to unite people of color in the NLG, to represent communities of color, to help people of color achieve their potential, and to function as a powerful force within the NLG, the United States, and the world. Membership is open to all members of the NLG community who self-identify as people of color. For more information, email tupocc@nlg.org.

Those who do not identify as people of color are encouraged to join the Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) of the Guild, an organization of “allies” that also does anti-racism work. The Anti-Racism Committee strives to make the Guild into an effective anti-racist organization, holding it to the principles on which it was founded.  The cost of joining the Anti-Racism Committee is $12, which can be paid with your membership dues. For more information, email antiracism@nlg.org.

The Alabama Manifesto

The Alabama Manifesto is the document that officially brought TUPOCC  into being. Local chapters and student chapters of the Guild are encouraged to formally adopt The Alabama Manifesto as well as to ensure that their activity is fully aligned with both the spirit and the letter of the Manifesto.

The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is an alliance of law students, legal workers, attorneys and other people of color within the NLG community. The necessity of such an organization is borne from the historical context of the capitalist United States where economic prowess is dependent on the furthered and continued subjugation of people of color, women, the poor, queers and other oppressed people. We are dedicated to fostering and supporting the growth and empowerment of all people of color, particularly within the organization of the NLG. We believe that meaningful social change and actual justice can only be attained when people of color and all other beleaguered communities are more than mere afterthoughts. Equality must be woven throughout the fabric of the organization. We seek to further educate ourselves and inform the larger NLG community about the issues that affect us and investigate the relationship of these issues to social justice. We strongly believe that this work cannot be done unaided, and we encourage support from our allies throughout the NLG in furtherance of our goals. We wish to provide all people of color opportunities in support of these goals, and when such opportunities are not available, to work with our associates and allies to create them. We seek to unite ourselves, represent our communities, achieve our potential, and function as a powerful force within the NLG, our chapters, schools, communities, the United States of America and the global population.

The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) of the NLG has a multi-point strategy that we shall use to advance our mission:

1.      Elect students of color and people of color into leadership positions within the NLG

2.      Demand that white and privileged Guild members take accountability for their racism and other oppressive behaviors by joining us in examining and effectively changing the culture of the NLG. Together we believe that we can accomplish this goal by:

a.       Meeting as people of color regularly to deal with oppression and other issues we uniquely experience as people of color

b.      Encouraging all members who are not of this caucus to regularly attend meetings of the Anti- Racism Committee, or preferably, to join such committees.

c.       Institutionalize an anti-racist agenda by creating policies in favor of and beneficial to eliminating racism and other oppressions. (e.g. making anti-racism an active and prioritized component of the National Convention)

3.      Alter the focus of the NLG by learning how to be accountable to the communities that it seeks to support and protect.

Law-School Specific Issues of Anti-Oppression

It’s no secret that US law schools are a hotbed of oppressive dynamics. For a stunning example, check out this short video created by students of color from UCLA Law School. Inevitably, the key question is not whether disparities exist, or whether oppression exists in US law schools – the question is what to do about it! Other chapters of this manual encourage curriculum change, faculty and student diversification, and those are two tactics that are certainly important and useful in working to push for more inclusive and welcoming dynamics. In addition, the Guild encourages its students to engage their schools directly on issues of oppression and inclusivity. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of actions students can take to engage their school administrations, faculty, and student body on this vital issue. Part III of this chapter provides a list of resources to help effectuate this effort.

  • Adopt the Alabama Manifesto and TUPOCC Pledge
  • Encourage schools to offer classes on Critical Legal Studies
  • Encourage schools to take on diverse faculty and prospective students
  • Hold regular and frequent anti-oppression trainings for students, faculty and staff
  • Encourage leadership of students of diverse backgrounds
  • Be an ally! This means many things. Check out our list of resources on this topic to learn more about being an ally.

Anti-Oppression Resources

The following is a list of suggested readings and resources on issues of oppression. For further guidance, consult TUPOCC and ARC!

General Resources about Anti-Oppression Work

Resources for Anti-Oppression Trainings

Resources on Being an Ally/Information on Privilege

[2] www.nlg.org/committees/TUPOCC

Changing Legal Pedagogy
By Will Pasley, UC Hastings NLG Graduate and Traci Yoder, NLG Director of Research and Education

[Download as PDF]

The current style of legal pedagogy was introduced in 1870 when Harvard Law School Dean Christopher Colombus Langdell initiated the use of the casebook method and the Socratic method, practices which were eventually institutionalized in American legal education, along with the use of the curve model of grading. Unlike many other higher education programs, the teaching and grading practices of law school are often deliberately confusing and intimidating. While the actual material is not always difficult to understand, the methods by which professors present information and assign grades produces anxiety and stress among students, as shown in the section on the psychological effects of law school. Furthermore, the teaching methods, grading system, and curriculum of legal education have evolved to promote and reinforce the desires of the elite, or what Nikki Demetria Thanos calls “the pedagogy of the oppressor.”[1]

In this section, we discuss the most common attributes of American legal pedagogy—the Socratic method, the casebook method, and the grading system—and offer suggestions for reforms in legal education that are more conducive to critical thinking, skills developments, and accurate assessment of student progress and understanding of material. The next section takes on the issue of curriculum, with suggestions for incorporating the insights of critical legal studies into law school programs.

Legal Pedagogy

American law school classes are generally structured to rely on a combination of the Socratic method—the form of teaching based on asking and answering questions—and the casebook method—reading illustrative examples of judicial principles. Law professors’ use of the Socratic method, portrayed in popular culture in movies such as The Paper Chase, is notorious for putting students on the spot and causing frustration and embarrassment. In a series of interviews conducted at UC Hastings Law, students described this teaching method as alienating, boring, and silencing. The professor’s strategy of asking questions often felt like “fishing” for the right answer, which students described as a waste of time. The Socratic method also produces classroom situations in which students ignore the insights of other students, instead waiting for the professor to point out the “correct” answers. Furthermore, trying to answer Socratic questions tends to make people feel like failures, as if they are being judged by the class.[2] While this method can give students practice thinking on their feet and with public speaking, it can take time away from actually teaching the material.

(Left: Scene from The Paper Chase [1973])

The casebook method also causes confusion and frustration in students. The reading materials are dry, repetitive, and often contradictory. In other countries, law professors are more likely to use summaries or overviews of legal rules. However, in the United States law students are expected to form a broader understanding of the law through their analysis of specific cases. This method of teaching requires assigning an enormous amount of reading, which is nearly impossible for students to absorb. Students must teach themselves to look for common themes and topics, a skill that takes time to develop as they become more immersed in the language of legal education. However, when scholarships are based on receiving good grades in the first year of law school, the stress of trying to understand how to read and study for exams is daunting.

The combination of these two methods produces a classroom environment that does not facilitate critical thinking, and causes difficulty for social justice-oriented students who want to question the assumptions that shape legal analysis. There is little space in the current classroom environment to question the version of the law presented, including the racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic underpinnings of the law itself. Students who choose to speak out and challenge the unjust nature of the legal system or the social effects of law are often silenced by the professor—who will tell them they need to learn the law as it exists—and by other students—who complain that the time spent discussing these issues will distract from material on which they will be tested.

Much of the anxiety and stress experienced in law school is directly related to the competitive and ambiguous nature of the grading system. One major reason grades do not reflect student understanding or effort is because exams fail to measure it. Exam-taking is a skill that is not used in legal practice and that is essentially useless to students outside of law school and the bar exam. Systems of grading should qualitatively tell a student what they are doing right and what they need to do to improve. The current grading system leaves students guessing at how to improve, and frustratingly ignorant of what they are doing correctly. This lack of relevant feedback causes speculation, and increases the sense of isolation and hyper-competition that are toxic for community-building.

Grades should not be based solely on end of the semester exams; they are not useful to students. The curve, which creates a general atmosphere of competition, exacerbates this frustration by constantly ranking students based on a vague and unexplained system of evaluation and grade assignment. As Duncan Kennedy writes in his famous critique of legal education: “Law schools teach these rather rudimentary, essentially instrumental skills in a way that almost completely mystifies them for almost all law students…students don’t know when they are learning and when they aren’t, and have no way of improving or even understanding their own learning process.”[3]

Ideas for Action

It may be hard to imagine a different way, but alternatives do exist. There are certainly less confusing ways to teach critical thinking and analysis. To take a page from Martin Luther King, a good process is: 1) Investigation into the situation at your school, 2) Build support, 3) Develop a strategy and concrete objective, 4) Dialogue with opponents, 5) Direct action if dialogue breaks down, 6) Reconciliation and change implementation, 7) Repeat.

You could form a teaching/grading reform task force at your law school to petition the administration to explore other options and methods. Find allies among other student groups to join you and be sure to articulate specific critiques and alternative models. Learn what your opponents are thinking and what their objectives are and adapt. Talking to faculty members could also be helpful in rethinking the methods of legal education; many will be key allies. Here are some suggestions for objectives to get you started imagining how to move forward:

  1. Expand on the typical Socratic/case method approach to include other pedagogical strategies.

Other graduate programs combine analysis of primary materials with overviews to provide context and an understanding of how individual readings are linked to a broader literature. Graduate seminars on related topics such as political science and sociology are more likely to use the call method and reading of primary texts in conjunction with professor-led lectures and group discussions in the classroom. Other graduate programs are also more invested in teaching their students excellent writing skills; law schools should integrate legal research and writing into every course. These methods can easily be adapted to legal education and provide an opportunity for more critical analysis and productive teaching styles.

  1. Reform the grading system to improve feedback and understanding of materials.

Perhaps the most impactful change would be to reform the grading system to provide useful feedback in order to reduce competition and isolation and increase understanding. The current grading system and feedback structures focus on student weaknesses and barely touch on student strengths. This severely undermines many students’ self-esteem and causes a sense of failure and a loss of confidence. This harms the greater professional community, as well as causing alienation within the law school community.

To approach this difficult discussion, reach out to students to generate suggestions for the type of feedback they would find useful and less stressful.  Reach out to faculty to figure out what they have time to do and what kind of training would be needed for them to embrace a new feedback system.  Reach out to employers, who often use GPAs as an applicant screening tool, and ask what kind of information they would like to know about their applicants and in what ways this can be effectively summarized.  The understanding you get from this process should hopefully point to a method that would be workable for all involved parties at your school.

  1. Replace the curve model with a more accurate and objective grading system.

Ending the curve would go a long way toward offering more accurate feedback to students. The curve method of grading as currently practiced increases student stress, anxiety, conformity, isolation, and fear of risk. What motivation it does provide tends to take the form of unhealthy hyper-competitiveness. The curve also adds to the creation of a situation where effort and understanding are not tied to grades. One student’s success depends on the failure of other students. The curve skews everything and essentially negates any useful feedback that could possibly be garnered from a grade. If grades are to be useful, they should tell students if they understand something correctly and how to understand it better, not where they fall in an arbitrary ranking system.[4]

Offering classes with pass/fail credit is one way to take the pressure off of students, especially in their first year. This allows students to take risks in classes they might otherwise avoid for fear of a bad grade. Making the first year all pass/fail would be a useful reform, since it would immensely lower people’s stress levels and substantially improve the school environment.[5]

  1. Include more clinics and apprenticeship opportunities.

One of the major problems with legal education as currently practiced is that legal doctrine is separated from the actual practice of law and the acquisition of practical skills. Improving this situation can be accomplished through the use of legal clinics, apprenticeships, and skills-based coursework in addition to theoretical pedagogy. Recently, there have been renewed suggestions that law school should follow the model of medical school, with residencies that provide on the job training during the third year.[6] If your law school does not offer enough clinical opportunities or skills-building coursework, petition the administration to create clinics that address the interests and needs of the student body.

  1. Change the culture of conformity and hierarchy that is produced by legal education.

Finally, an important part of what needs to change is the sense of entitlement instilled in students who have gone through this kind of pedagogy and managed to “succeed” in the stereotypical sense. As Nikki Demetria Thanos writes in A Handbook for Social Justice Activists Thinking about Law School, “Artificial stressors are woven into the pedagogy of legal education, reinforced by students, and effectively convert an unearned privilege into something you think you deserve because ‘you have worked so hard.’” Instead of insisting that other students go through the same high-stress, obfuscating learning environment, students should organize to challenge these practices and replace them with models that can facilitate social justice work in law schools.

Challenging the culture of law school means building new norms, such as emphasizing pride in maintaining one’s purpose and identity during and after law school.  Building support groups is a good method, as well as coordinating with each other to voice dissent. Make pacts with other students to support each other in class discussions and write for student newspapers. And most of all, talk with many other students about these issues. Culture change takes communication; people need to know they are not alone in their reaction to law school. We have a large base of untapped support among student populations; we just need to reach out. You can make significant progress toward changing your school’s culture as well as winning better methods of teaching as well as clear feedback and grading criteria.


Implementing these changes will go against the grain of legal education as it has been practiced for over a century. You will meet resistance from other students who are afraid to go against the flow, and from administrators who worry that changes might hurt their U.S. News and World Report rankings. However, at a time when tuition and levels of debt are higher than ever, when the legal education industry is in flux, and when popular and scholarly commentators are suggesting the need for law school reforms, these ideas for a new kind of legal pedagogy could be received more willingly than in the past. The effort to radically transform legal education could have enormous implications. Duncan Kennedy’s advice to law students, professors, and administrators in 1981 still applies today:

If law schools invested some of the time and money they now put into Socratic classes into developing systematic skills training, and committed themselves to giving constant, detailed feedback on student progress in learning those skills, they could graduate the vast majority of all the law students in the country at the level of technical proficiency now achieved by a small minority in each institution.[7]

Further Resources

Michael Hunter Schvartz, “Teaching Law by Design: How Learning Theory and Instructional Design Can Inform and Reform Law Teaching,” 38 San Diego L. Rev. 347, 354. (2009).

Deborah L. Rhode, “Kicking the Socratic Method and Other Reforms of Law Schools,” Chron. Higher Educ., Jan. 26, 2001.

Jennifer L. Rosato, “The Socratic Method and Women Law Students: Humanize, Don’t Feminize,” 7 S. Cal. Rev. L. & Women’s Stud. 37, 40 (1997).

Jennifer Jaff, “Frame-Shifting: An Empowering Methodology for Teaching and Learning Legal Reasoning,” 36 J. Legal Educ. 249, 260 (1986).

Paul F. Teich, “Research On American Law Teaching: Is There a Case Against the Case System?,” 36 J. Legal Educ. 167 (1986).

Duncan Kennedy, “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy.”

[1] A Handbook for Social Justice Activists Thinking about Law School by Nikki Demetria Thanos

[2] These interviews were conducted by Will Pasley in late September and October 2011 among students at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.

[3] Duncan Kennedy, “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy,” in The Politics of Law, page 59.

[4] One counter-argument is that employers expect the curve and that we would hurt our students by putting them outside the norm.  This is a valid concern and something that we would have to figure out a way around.  There should be a way of designing a grading system that summarizes the quality of an applicant to employers which does not have this level of negative impact on students.

[5] Many people will suggest that students will lose motivation if they do not have the bad-grade cudgel hanging over their head.  I think this view fails to see that Hastings students are internally motivated to learn the law and that focusing all of our attention on the external motivator of grades actually hurts us.  This view also ignores the fact that grades do not reflect how well students know the subject or how much work they have put into it.

[6] Samuel Estreicher, “The Roosevelt-Cardozo Way: The Case for Bar Eligibility After Two Years of Law School,” New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, Vol. 15, issue 3 NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 12-39.

[7] Kennedy, “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy,” page 63.

Radicalizing Curriculum
By Erin Duncan (Lewis and Clark NLG Graduate), Austin Smith (University of Virginia NLG Graduate), and Hannah Adams and Sharlyn Grace (Northeastern NLG Graduates)

[Download as PDF]

In the late 1970s, a group of law professors and legal practitioners began to question the social role of law and the ways that law legitimated forms of injustice. This group came to be known as “Critical Legal Studies” (also known as “Crits” or “CLS”), and initially took form through the organizing efforts of Harvard Law professor Duncan Kennedy. Drawing on the energy and insights of the civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, CLS scholars critiqued the role of courts, legal statutes, and legal education in creating and maintaining systems of oppression. Crits and their theories were immediately controversial; law faculties developed pro- and anti-Crits groups that squared off on decisions regarding hiring, tenure, and course assignments.[1] It was during this period that the conservative Federalist Society formed at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago to combat the perceived Leftist turn in legal academia.[2]

Since the 1970’s other bodies of critical legal thought have developed to expand, and at times challenge, the CLS critique. These include Critical Race Theory, LatCrit Theory, Asian American Jurisprudence, Feminist Legal Theory, Critical Race Feminism, and Queer Theory. Sometimes these bodies of thought developed out of organizing on law school campuses by students of color, women, and queer students, demanding a more progressive legal pedagogy. For example, the development of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is rooted in student protests at Harvard in the early 1980’s after preeminent CRT scholar Derrick Bell left and students demanded that the school hire a professor of color to replace him and teach a course on racial issues. When Harvard instead hired two white civil rights litigators, students organized their own “Alternative Course” to explore the relationship between the law and racial power.[3]

While the CLS school of thought was never homogenous, there are several themes running through the work of people who identify as Crits, including analyses of the “politics of law,” a critique of the notion of the autonomous individual, and the belief that law is designed to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and the marginalized. According to David Kairys, an NLG member who edited the seminal CLS collection, The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique, law is powerful because “it enforces, reflects, constitutes, and legitimizes dominant social and power relations without a need for or the appearance of control from outside and by means of social actors who largely believe in their own neutrality and the myth of nonpolitical, legally determined results.”[4] Critical race theorists expand the CLS critique by analyzing the role of law in legitimizing a regime of white supremacy and subordination of people of color, and seeking “not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it.”[5]

The Crits were also interested in critiquing and reforming legal education. Kennedy’s classic article, Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy (1982), argued that law school was designed to indoctrinate students to accept their role as power elite, rightfully controlling access and knowledge in U.S. society. Law school curriculum, teaching styles, grading and ranking practices, the law firm hiring system, and the lifestyle all worked together to train students to accept and participate in social hierarchies. The discomfort many left-leaning law students feel as they are told to discount their ethical intuitions about just outcomes in favor of the “rational” results provided by legal reasoning is a critical opportunity for the introduction of CLS and related critiques. Critical Race Theorists such as Patricia J. Williams have written powerfully about the acceptance of racist logics required to reach a “correct” legal result on law school exams or in classroom hypotheticals, and about the personal cost of doing so when one’s own identity and/or experiences must be suppressed in order to understand and advocate for the proper legal result.[6] Some of the authors found the most interest in extra (critical) readings came from students who felt most like they “just didn’t get it” or couldn’t do “legal logic” or fantasized constantly about dropping out. These readings and conversations provided a lifeline to the real world outside of law school, and also formed a community that supported each other in challenging oppressive logics and arguments within classrooms.

Despite such necessary critiques made decades ago, little has changed in how law schools teach students about the law and legal reasoning, meaning CLS and Critical Race Theory are as relevant and important as ever. As Brian Tamanaha has pointed out, many of the CLS scholars who wrote such critical analyses of law and legal education were quite conformist in their own roles as tenured professors at elite law schools. He writes: “Seduced by the allure of prestige and material comforts, Crits and progressive law professors have become part of the system they set out to reform.”[7] Perhaps because of the comfort offered by most legal professorship positions, few of the remaining, self-identified CLS scholars have spoken up about the rise of law school tuition, economic barriers to entering the legal profession, or the exorbitant rates of student debt. Nevertheless, Crit insights can help law students who are looking to challenge the both the structures and the culture of law schools and the legal profession. Critical legal studies and related strains of scholarship can provide vital alternative perspectives to those encountered in law school classrooms, and for some students, make all the difference in keeping them in the legal profession.

Critical Legal Studies in the Curriculum

Unless you attend a law school that has a number of critical legal or critical race scholars on the faculty, the insights of CLS and CRT are not likely to be emphasized in the curriculum.[8] There are, however, numerous ways to bring these voices and analyses to the students at your law school, either through an extra-curricular study group, alternative supplements to courses offered at your school, or curriculum diversity initiatives to expand the official curriculum.

Part 1: CLS Reading Groups and Supplemental Materials

Many schools create study groups that read CLS/CRT pieces and then meet to discuss the ideas and how they apply to or challenge their main coursework. Students and faculty can work together to choose readings, plan discussions, and create materials. For more on how to set up a CLS reading group, see the best practices and sample syllabus and discussion group readings below. These are based on the experiences of NLG students at Northeastern University School of Law (“NUSL”) in Boston. The syllabus includes a six-semester list of topics and readings that can be adapted for use at your school, while the reading group provides a range of topics that can be used at any time.

An additional way to incorporate CLS work into your law school curriculum is to create alternative supplements to address issues that come up in required classes. These materials can provide alternative perspectives and raise critical questions for students to take with them into the classroom to challenge the business-as-usual approach to legal pedagogy.

Some possible topics to include in a radical legal studies curriculum and/or course supplement:

  • Anti-Oppression work within Law School and the Legal Profession
  • Curriculum and Structure of Law School
  • Movement Lawyering
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Feminist Legal Theory
  • Queer Theory
  • Critical Perspectives on Property, Torts, Contacts, Civil Procedure, and other 1L doctrinal classes

Best Practices for CLS Reading Groups

The student-led NUSL CLS sessions provide a range of example topics and readings to create a radical alternative curriculum. Our experience also offers a number of best practices for those of you looking to start a similar program at your law schools:

  1. Incorporate faculty. Faculty members are great resources to assist in finding readings, leading discussions, and bringing in more students. Find faculty at your institution who have written or taught from a critical legal studies perspective and ask them to work with your group to create an alternative curriculum. If you do not have CLS/CRT faculty members at your law school, contact the NLG National Office for help getting in touch with critical scholars.
  2. Include many different kinds of writing in your radical legal curriculum. Critical legal studies and Critical Race Theory books, articles, case law, popular articles and blogs, and studies from other related disciplines (e.g. sociology, anthropology, political science) can all work together to bring a more nuanced analysis to your discussions. Reach out to other graduate departments at your university to collaborate with thinkers trained in disciplines other than the law.
  3. Include student-led discussions as well as presentations by faculty, attorneys, and organizers. Students should create a unique syllabus tailored to the needs of their school community and choose topics they want to address. Presentations should allow plenty of time for discussion and debate…unlike law school classes. This is the time to analyze the implicit meanings and effects of the law, and possibly to recharge or strategize about how to raise these issues in those larger classrooms..
  4. Work with other student groups to discuss topics of interest. Invite groups like Black Law Student Association (BLSA), La Raza/Latino/a Law Students Association (LLSA), OutLaw, and Law Students for Reproductive Justice to co-develop and participate in discussions on critical race, feminist, and queer perspectives.[9]
  5. Plan dinner/potluck events to end semesters. This is a fun way to spend time with other students in a more relaxed atmosphere. One of the important results of these discussion groups is to create an intentionally critical and supportive intellectual community within your law school. Social events can help to solidify these connections. Plus, everyone’s got to eat, which can help individuals find time to attend even when otherwise busy.

Sample CLS (and CLS-influenced) Reading Group Topics: Northeastern NLG

Click here for CLS Reading Group Topics (including readings!)

  1. Intro to Critical Race Theory
  2. Community Lawyering
  3. Intersectionality in Legal Discourse
  4. Radical Law Practice and Connections to Public Health Discourse
  5. Feminist Legal Thought and Queer Theory
  6. Art, Activism, and the Practice of Law
  7. Critical Race Theory, Women, & Poverty
  8. Accent, Masking, and Legal Discourse
  9. Law School and Legal Pedagogy
  10. Environmental Justice & Environmental Racism
  11. Gender Policing, Transphobia, Criminalization, and the Prison Industrial Complex
  12. Critiques of Rights Discourse & the “Perpetrator Perspective”
  13. MLK Day and Law Student Organizing
  14. Enforcement of Gender Norms through the Criminal Legal System and Prison Industrial Complex
  15. The Welfare Rights Movement with Lucy WilliamsMLK Day 2015 (incl. Civil Disobedience, CRT, #BlackLivesMatter)

Sample CLS (and CLS-influenced) Study Session Topics: Northeastern NLG

Semester 1

Introduction to Critical Legal Studies
Critical Race Theory
Critical Queer Theory

Semester 2

 What is critical legal theory?
(Post) Identity and the Law
Who Fits the Profile?: Thinking about Race, Class, and Property

Semester 3

HIV, Feminism, Sex Work and Criminal Law: Unintended Consequences
Legal Reasoning as Rhetorical Strategy–Lessons from Torts to Contracts!
Duncan Kennedy on Alternative Legal Education

Semester 4

Critical Perspective On Contracts: A Workshop
CLS and Legal Education Dinner Discussion
Student-led Critical Torts Workshop
Critical Property

Semester 5

Critical Civil Procedure
Critical Contracts Workshop
Critical Constitutional Law
Critical Race Theory Goes Global

Semester 6

Critical Criminal Law Workshop
Queer Theory and the Critique of Law

Part 2: Curriculum Diversity Initiatives

In addition to introducing Critical Legal Studies into your law school through the creation of study groups and radical supplemental materials, another avenue to action is to challenge the diversity of your school’s curriculum. The following are suggested steps to consider as you work toward ensuring the courses offered at your institution represent and welcome a wider (and more radical) set of views. You will likely need to tailor some of them to your own school’s situation, but all can be valuable starting points for discussing how to proceed. Finally, the Lewis and Clark NLG chapter’s curriculum diversity proposal is also included as an example of what you might want to work toward!

Steps to Bring a Curriculum Diversity Initiative

  1. Identify the need

Your NLG chapter can host a series of trainings on your campus on subjects such as combating racism or sexism, or the underrepresentation of minority voices. Solicit conversations, either using such trainings or otherwise, about students’ feelings about (un)willingness on the part of professors and classmates to delve deeply into issues of race, gender, and other critical social topics within substantive law courses. If your school has a Diversity Working Group (DWG) or analogous institution, it may be able to administer a survey to students of color, female students, or LGBTQ students to help identify diversity programming needs. That information can be used to set goals and be shared with concerned NLG students as your law school chapter begins to discuss the possibility of a diversity curriculum proposal. Your instincts about precisely what kinds of increased diversity are necessary might not match exactly what the student body identifies. Take their voices into account while also appropriately using your own experience to inform the process.

  1. Strive for inclusivity

Any conversation about curricular changes on your campus should be inclusive. Consider having student representatives survey the leaders of other student groups on campus to inquire about support for a diversity curriculum initiative.

  1. Prepare for initial backlash from students

It is quite possible that other student group leaders may respond to these first emails with immediate criticism at the thought of additional graduation requirements and the idea that NLG would want to impose a political or doctrinal agenda on all students. This may become the most difficult line to walk in developing the initiative: how to express your group’s desire to reach all students–including and especially those who would not normally seek out diversity or inequality-focused law courses–without alienating those students you are trying to reach.

  1. Recruit allies

Despite some backlash, you can also probably expect to receive a number of supportive messages from like-minded student groups. Work with these groups to develop a proposal addressed to your school’s Curriculum Committee. Your proposal should go through several revisions as you seek advice and support from various people. Seek out other groups, either student-run or within your school’s administration, that are likely to be supportive of your goals. Continue to collaborate with these groups as you create new goals for diversity planning. Your NLG chapter can also encourage individual students to approach professors to express the desire to engage with topics of privilege, bias, and diverse viewpoints in substantive law courses. Faculty members are actually more likely to address these concerns if they come from the students, rather than from their colleagues.

  1. Build awareness

While working on the proposal, you can also host campus events to get people talking about these ideas. One NLG chapter hosted an event titled “Rethinking Professionalism in a Diverse World,” intended to frame cultural competence in terms of professionalism, which it was felt would bring more people to the table than confronting the community with terms such as “structural inequality.” (From the event description: “Knowledge of diversity issues is a core tenet of service to clients. Come hear local attorneys talk about preconceptions that clients and attorneys both bring to the table, and how knowledge of diverse perspectives, privileges and biases is important to attorneys’ professional conduct.”)  Again, you will likely need to try to balance a need to not alienate allies with a need to remain true to your ultimate goals and ideals. For example, professionalism may be a part of your ultimate proposal with broad support, but you might also want to include the suggestion of an academic graduation requirement centered on diversity even if some of your allies might consider that suggestion too radical and/or logistically difficult to achieve.

  1. Create a roadmap for next steps

Submit a final proposal to the Curriculum Committee. One element of the proposal could be a five-year plan to be implemented by a student task force in collaboration with faculty and staff at your law school. You can ask for institutional support in the creation and facilitation of the task force and long-term plan. A sample proposal, from the Lewis & Clark NLG student chapter, is included below. Your school may find it helpful in planning your own efforts to engage your law school community in meaningful discussion about inequalities in the law and the need for more diversity in legal education.

Sample Diversity Curriculum Proposal: Lewis and Clark NLG

Curriculum Committee

Lewis & Clark Law School

Re: Curriculum Diversity Initiative

To the Curriculum Committee:

We are writing to express our desire to see Lewis & Clark lead other law schools in the development of a long-term initiative to better integrate diversity education into the school’s legal training in order to prepare Lewis & Clark students to be professional, knowledgeable advocates in a diverse world.[10]

The National Lawyers Guild’s mission is to safeguard the rights of people marginalized by poverty and discrimination and to effect structural change to vindicate people’s rights. To that end, our student group has attempted to stimulate discussion on campus about the inherent injustices of our legal system, which we believe is built on and still serves a majority culture. We feel that learning how to recognize issues of privilege, bias, diversity, and discrimination is a critical professional skill for all new lawyers–not just those lawyers who seek out such education in extra-curricular forums. We see diversity education as both a tool of professionalism and a value unto itself that has intrinsic importance.

Our own experiences and stories shared by our peers make it apparent that students sometimes feel unsupported in raising gender, race, poverty, or other social issues in their classes. A recent survey conducted by the school confirmed that students of color in particular feel uncomfortable raising race and ethnicity in their classes, despite a desire to discuss the implications of race and ethnicity in the law. [Footnote with redacted internal survey information]. We want to feel comfortable talking about these issues with our peers and professors, learning to have frank discussions while being sensitive to different cultural perspectives and points of view. We believe that the suggestions outlined below can help our school community reach that place of open and honest learning.

Numerous undergraduate programs have recognized the importance of diversity requirements in fulfilling their academic missions.[11] Further, Oregon’s legal community has made education about inequality and diversity a priority. For example, the Oregon State Bar’s Diversity & Inclusion Section seeks to remove barriers to justice in part by “educating attorneys about the cultural richness and diversity of the clients they serve.”[12] The Bar requires Oregon lawyers to take access to justice credits to meet continuing education requirements. Also, many law firms now have diversity managers who carry out internal diversity initiatives. Diversity education is clearly a component of professionalism that should not only run through existing courses but should be taught in law schools as a specific requirement of legal training.

To meet these goals, we hope the Curriculum Committee will take the following suggestions under consideration. We suggest that the school work with students to design and implement a structured five-year plan with increasing integration of diversity education. The need for staff and faculty support for an ongoing plan is critical to achieving these goals, as student turnover could otherwise frustrate the process.

  1. The school should support the creation of a diversity education student task force, made up of representatives from identity-based groups, public interest student groups, and other interested students not affiliated with student groups. This task force could interact with and report to the Curriculum Committee and the existing Diversity Working Group made up of faculty, staff, and students.[13] The task force should not be treated as another student club. It should receive institutional support, working closely with faculty and administration to implement a five-year plan.
  2. The task force, Diversity Working Group, and Curriculum Committee should host a community forum with participation from staff, faculty, and students to agree upon a five-year plan.
  3. The five year plan could include:
  • Yearly anti-racism or other inequality trainings, with school-wide participation.
  • Incorporating a required diversity component into existing Professionalism and Ethics courses.
  • Creating a library database of diversity materials pegged to law school subjects to assist faculty with incorporating diversity concepts into existing classes through syllabus supplements.[14]
  • Incorporating diversity education into Legal Elements.
  • Incorporating a question into course evaluations about the extent to which a professor addressed issues of diversity and social justice during the course.
  • Encouraging faculty-directed reading groups on relevant topics and further faculty support for student-directed reading groups on social justice topics.
  • Creating stronger ties to the Oregon State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion section and encouraging law student participation in community diversity initiatives.
  • Creating a course or forum for recent alumni to reflect on the challenges and changes to their values during law school and in legal practice.
  • Creating an academic requirement apart from Professionalism courses, requiring students to take at least one class in a category of diversity-oriented courses in order to graduate.

We understand that there may be many logistical hurdles to realizing these goals, but those hurdles will be much larger for students to tackle without institutional support. We hope this letter can at least begin a dialogue with the school and help establish a plan of action to move forward.

With your help, we can make affirmative efforts to educate ourselves about how others view the world and to become well-rounded lawyers in our increasingly diverse state and society. Our clients and colleagues will be of many races, gender identities, and cultures, and we want to be able to relate to them as sensitive, educated lawyers.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to your response. [Contact information].

National Lawyers Guild, Lewis & Clark Law School Student Chapter

With support from:

Minority Law Students Association • Latino Law Society • Jewish Legal Society • OutLaw • ACLU • Black Law Students Association • Women’s Law Caucus • Asian/Pacific American Law Student Association • Native American Law Students Association • Public Interest Law Project • Christian Legal Fellowship • Family Law Society • American Constitution Society • Law Students for Reproductive Justice • Students for Sensible Drug Policy • Coalition Advocating for Transportation Solutions

cc:        Associate Dean of Faculty
Curriculum Committee Chair
Diversity Working Group Chair
Interim Diversity Working Group Chair

Further Resources

David Kairys, ed. The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique. Basic Books (1998).

[1] David Kairys, Philadelphia Freedom: Memoirs of a Civil Rights Lawyer (University of Michigan, 2008).

[2] Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back From Liberals(Vanderbilt University, 2013).

[3] Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement xx-xxi (1995).

[4] Kairys, Philadelphia Freedom, 15.

[5] Crenshaw, supra note 3, at xiii.

[6] “Williams mentions ‘a constitutional law exam in which students are given the lengthy text of a hate-filled polemic entitled ‘How To Be a Jew-Nigger’ and then told to use the First Amendment to defend it.’ Williams makes the point that students taking such an exam, in this case especially Jewish and African-American students, are required to write against their own personal knowledge and experience. She notes that a student who refuses to do this will receive a lower grade, and guesses that ‘everyone, including perhaps the students of color, will rationalize this result away as an inability to ‘think like a lawyer.’” Angela P. Harris and Marjorie M Shultz, “(A)nother Critique of Pure Reason: Toward Civic Virtue in Legal Education” 1773.,quoting Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor, 84 (1991).

[7] Tamanaha, “The Failure of Crits and Leftist Law Professors to Defend Progressive Causes,” 343.

[8] Law schools in the U.S. known for CLS work include Harvard Law School, Georgetown University Law Center, Northeastern University, and the University at Buffalo.

[9] Note that this suggested collaboration should never take the form of students from a dominant identity (for example, a mostly white NLG group) inviting students from oppressed identities (for example, BLSA) to educate the first group on oppression. It is crucial that everyone, including law students, who does not experience a form of oppression take an active role in educating themselves and not rely on others to do this work for them.

[10] This issue is separate from admissions diversity, although the inclusion of many viewpoints in our school community is important to our goal.

[11] See Loyola University Maryland’s requirement that students take Global Awareness, Justice Awareness, and Domestic Diversity Awareness courses (http://bit.ly/Uljmt2), Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences requirement that students take courses meant to “enable an understanding of an increasingly globalized world” (http://bit.ly/PQNbFl), Fairfield University’s Core Curriculum Diversity Requirement aimed at helping students “develop a critical consciousness of self and society” (http://bit.ly/UE63V4), and Colby College’s Diversity Academic Requirement which helps ensure that students “learn how people different from oneself have contributed to the richness and diversity of society, how prejudice limits such personal and cultural enrichment, and how each individual can confront intolerance” (http://bit.ly/T15tV2).

[13] Representatives of our group have met with the Diversity Working Group, whose members have expressed support for a student-driven initiative that will complement and amplify but not duplicate that group’s own goals.

[14] See “Diversity Readings Related to First-Year Courses,” compiled by Mary Whisner, reference library at the Gallagher Law Library, University of Washington School of Law. Available at: https://lib.law.washington.edu/content/guides/Diversity1L.

After Law School: Advice from NLG Next Gen
By Tim Phillips, NLG Next Gen Committee

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Welcome to one of the “useless or destructive occupations.”[1]  Law school graduates have an average debt load of more than $100,000 and face a dismal job market.[2]  Combined, these two forces prevent many new lawyers from staying true to their values.  Yet for those of us who can resist the pressure to betray our ideals, how do we find meaningful work and also make a living? Here are some suggestions from a member of the NLG Next Generation Committee (Next Gen).  Next Gen welcomes progressive law students, recent graduates, legal workers, young lawyers and jailhouse lawyers, and law school candidates interested in radical lawyering and social change. Next Gen sponsors social events, offers guidance and support to new members, and works to support and sustain the “next generation” of the Guild. The National Next Gen Committee helps develop and sustain local Next Gen chapters and promotes new leadership within the Guild.

To Find Meaningful Work, Expand Your Network

Unless you start your own firm, you probably want someone to hire you.  But it’s difficult to stand out when all someone knows about you is what’s on your resume. The solution: meet as many progressive lawyers as possible, in person (e.g., for coffee or lunch), so you’re on their minds when they hear about job opportunities of interest.

Every time you meet with lawyers, write down the names of all the people they tell you to contact. After you contact (or ideally, meet with) one of those lawyers, you have a reason to follow up with each person who gave you that lawyer’s name. To make sure you don’t lose touch with anyone, put them all in a spreadsheet and review it every so often.

There’s nothing inherently radical about networking, of course, but for most of us it’s more likely to lead to meaningful work than applying for jobs online. After I graduated from Hastings in 2008, I emailed my resume to approximately 235 people and met with about 25 of them.  I ultimately found long-term paid work with two of the plaintiff-side litigators who had replied to my initial email by saying they weren’t currently looking to hire anyone.  (One paid me by the hour and the other paid me a percentage when cases resolved.)  By following up with them even though they didn’t appear to be hiring anytime soon, I was still on their minds when they decided to bring someone in.

I moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis in 2012, without a job lined up; so I emailed my resume to approximately 165 people and met with about 80 of them.  Again, the plaintiff-side litigator who hired me had initially said he wasn’t looking to bring in another litigator. He invited me to do his phone intakes.  I declined, but when I followed up several months later, his circumstances had changed and he asked me to join the firm as a civil rights attorney.

To Make Ends Meet While Looking for Work, Try to Find a Job with a Predictable Income

From meeting with progressive lawyers, you’ll get the impression that some of them proceeded as follows: they exited law school, joined the legal team on some lucrative plaintiff-side case, stuck with it for years, and made a ton of money when the case finally resolved.  That money became the war chest that allowed them to bankroll future plaintiff-side cases.  If you’re not careful, pretty soon you’ll have a very romantic idea about what it’s like to be a struggling young lawyer.

In addition, plaintiff-side attorneys you meet will offer to co-counsel with you on contingent-fee cases, which might not produce any income for you for years.  The advice I got from a friend, who saved me, was to avoid co-counseling on any contingent-fee cases until I found other work for which I would receive a relatively predictable income.  For me, this meant waiting until at least one attorney was paying me by the hour before I agreed to co-counsel with any plaintiff-side lawyers.

Once I found hourly work on plaintiff-side litigation, I was able to move into another attorney’s office and begin co-counseling on contingent-fee cases.  And after I’d been co-counseling on contingent-fee cases for a few years, I could afford to abandon the hourly work.  But hourly work was critical for those first few years, because the rent and loan payments were due every month, but my plaintiff-side cases could take 18 months or more to resolve.  This is why it’s important to start with work that provides a relatively predictable income.

To Receive Payment to Do What You Want, Apply for Fellowships

Like any job posted online, you shouldn’t expect to receive a fellowship.  The upside of applying for fellowships, though the amount of work it takes to apply is arguably equivalent to an additional law school course, is that it brings noticeable clarity to your job search.  The process of applying for one fellowship after another refines your concept of what kind of work you actually want to do after graduating and passing the bar.

I applied for Equal Justice Works, Soros, and Echoing Green fellowships.  I also applied for a fellowship specific to Hastings graduates.  Despite all the work I put into these four fellowships, I wasn’t selected for any of them.  Yet the research and writing involved in applying forced me to consider exactly what role I wanted to play as an attorney (e.g., a litigator, policy analyst, or liaison between activists and their attorneys of record), and whether the clients with whom I intended to collaborate were truly underserved or sufficiently represented by existing organizations.

After the 2008 financial crisis, some law schools now offer part-time “fellowships” of a different kind, where alumni temporarily work for professors.  For example, my first job after taking the bar exam was a 17 hour per week Graduate Research Fellowship capped at 150 hours.  If you can land this sort of fellowship and work part-time while seeking longer-term opportunities, all the better!

To Perform Legal Services Competently, Find Mentors

If you meet for coffee or lunch with every progressive lawyer who’s willing, another benefit is that you’ll have a large (and ideally, diverse) pool of lawyers from which to find great mentors. When a case comes along that you don’t have enough experience to handle without consulting or associating with another lawyer, you’ll have plenty of lawyers to contact with questions. You can also consider working for free as support counsel for another lawyer or group of lawyers if the right case comes along.

For me, that case came along in February 2009, when four animal rights activists were charged with violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Although my role was limited to editing and legal research, my participation with the legal team allowed me to learn from seasoned criminal defense attorneys about handling a political case.  On July 12, 2010, the court granted our motion to dismiss the indictments.

To Keep Hope Alive, Represent Activists

Political cases sometimes involve a lot of work and little to no pay. They might keep you busy and make it even more difficult to pay the bills. The upshot of taking on political cases, however, is that instead of helping everyday people one by one, you get the chance to help activists and organizers who are building movements for social justice.

The first political case I handled on my own illustrated this difference between representing people in individual disputes and representing activists.  (This is not to say, however, that there’s a clear line between activists and non-activists.) In December 2009, more than 60 people were arrested for participating in an open occupation at the University of California, Berkeley. Arrestees who weren’t UC Berkeley students received notices of exclusion, ordering them to stay away from the Berkeley campus.  My client re-entered the campus with a protest sign and was charged with misdemeanor “campus disruption.” On June 7, 2010, when the prosecutor dismissed the charge, it didn’t merely appease my client. It also undermined the government’s attempt, at a time when campus protests were increasingly confrontational, to deter people from disobeying orders.

Although you will rarely, if ever, receive compensation for representing activists, you must represent them as diligently as you would any other client.  For example, as a jury trial approaches, you might become busy and prefer not to spend the next week in court without pay.  (Or you might not understand why your client wants to plead guilty to a trumped-up charge.)  Regardless, as with all clients, it’s their decision whether to accept or reject settlement offers or plea deals.

If you wind up working on one of the rare cases in which you do receive payment to represent an activist, consider the economic implications of how you spend that money.  When people involved in social justice movements pay lawyers, that money is too-often diverted from a solidarity economy (e.g., the collectively-run restaurant where your client would have spent the money) back into the scarcity economy (e.g., the corporation you pay to serve process, even though there’s a local worker-owned messenger service in town).

Finally, when you represent activists, resist becoming the face of the campaign or movement.  Your clients will appreciate your work much more if you join them in the streets and read what they’re reading (or writing!) than if you approach representing them with a savior mentality.  It isn’t just what we’re doing to transform society, but how we’re doing it, that matters.

To Increase Your Bargaining Power, Gain Courtroom Experience

The practice of law is stressful for newer attorneys, because every task you’ve never completed before represents an opportunity to make a colossal mistake.  Some newer attorneys, for example, resolve cases via settlements or plea deals when more seasoned attorneys might have taken the cases to trial in light of the last offers from opposing counsel. Not only do newer attorneys have little to no trial experience, making them hesitant to try cases, but their lack of trial experience can result in worse pretrial offers from the other side.

The opportunity that assuaged my nervousness regarding court appearances was the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) Homeless Rights Project in San Francisco.  One year after I graduated from law school, I began representing houseless people who received citations for “quality of life” offenses (e.g., camping or drinking in public).  If a case wasn’t dismissed at the arraignment in Traffic Court, meaning the officer actually showed up, I set it for trial.

Although the defendants didn’t have a right to a jury trial in Traffic Court, the bench trials gave me a chance to argue in front of a judge and sometimes cross-examine police officers.  For example, a couple months after I started volunteering with the project, an officer testified that she found my client sitting on a chair on the side of a street, holding a cylindrical object enclosed in a brown paper bag. She allegedly noticed a slight smell of alcohol emanating from him and the brown paper bag. But because she didn’t smell the clear liquid in the gin bottle he was holding, the judge granted my oral motion to dismiss my client’s citation.

After countless arraignments and trials in Traffic Court, I was much more comfortable appearing before judges.  Other pro bono work, such as representing defendants in misdemeanor cases, has provided me with similarly valuable courtroom experience.  Even though my paid work is plaintiff-side litigation, my first jury trial on my own was a misdemeanor case in which one of my pro bono clients wisely refused to take a deal.

To Avoid Friction Between You and Your Clients, Understand Their Goals

Before agreeing to represent people, make sure you know their objectives.  You already understand they’re in it to win; but does winning mean a settlement, a jury verdict, favorable publicity, a legal precedent, an injunction, or a campaign to get the charges dismissed?

On a related note, be careful not to jump to conclusions regarding how much experience your clients have with the legal system.  Before I met one of my activist clients, for example, I explained some of the basics to him over the phone regarding his misdemeanor charges of trespassing and fleeing an officer on foot.  “This isn’t my first time at the rodeo,” he said, gently reminding me that not everyone who reaches out to an attorney is starting from the same place.

Whether or not retaining an attorney is a brand new experience for your client, however, it’s important to communicate with each client in such a way that the client knows what’s happening in the case and why.  And even if you’ve discussed your clients’ goals with them at the outset of the representation, goals are fungible. For this reason, it’s important to discuss their goals early and often.

Also, make sure your clients also know exactly what you’re agreeing to do (e.g., represent them through trial, if necessary) and which legal services you cannot provide (e.g., any appeal).  In addition, let your clients know what to expect.  As you know, certain people face disparities in the legal system, so it would be a mistake to assume that everyone will be treated the same.

After you’ve had a chance to gather and evaluate information about both the law and the facts, do your best to generate possible solutions and estimate the advantages, costs, risks, other consequences, and odds of success for each. Then meet with your client to confirm your understanding of the client’s goals and preferences, the facts, and the non-legal aspects, and to clearly explain your predictions, incorporate the client’s insights, and ask the client to choose the best option. Seek the active participation of your client in deliberating, framing the dispute, and implementing the potential solution you’ve agreed on.

Last but not least, the amount and terms of payment should be crystal clear from the beginning of the representation.

To Attract New Clients, Join Organizations and Provide Legal Trainings

Attracting new clients requires that you retain and grow relationships, increase your name recognition, and communicate effectively.  This involves joining organizations, writing for periodicals or blogs, sending out updates about your practice, and presenting on issues relevant to the communities with whom you hope to collaborate.

Like networking, there’s nothing inherently radical about marketing; but if you can stomach it, these activities might be more likely to bring in the types of cases you want to work on than online marketing or waiting to see who walks in the door.  The way I started out was by joining the Executive Board of the Bay Area Chapter of the NLG from 2010 to 2012.  I’m now a member of both the National Employment Lawyers Association and the National Police Accountability Project.  In addition, I serve as the Legal Advisor for a group called Support Vegans in the Prison System, for which I write letters on behalf of vegan inmates.

Since beginning law school, I’ve also led (or co-led) several Know Your Rights trainings, at locations such as the Glen Cove Sacred Site, a Crimethinc. Convergence, a Central Wisconsin Action Camp, and the high school I once attended.  It might seem arbitrary, but training people as the need arises is a great way to maintain ties with folks who just might keep you in mind when a legal issue comes up in the future.  Obviously you should do what you can to help people regardless of whether it’s a good networking or marketing opportunity.  One way to make sure you can work pro bono from time to time, though, is to acknowledge the fact that you need a sufficient number of paying clients, too.

Join a Local NLG Next Gen Committee

Many reading this manual are already involved with the National Lawyers Guild as student members. Once you’ve graduated, the Guild will need your skills, energy, and support more than ever to keep assisting movements for social justice.  Be sure to keep your membership dues up to date and remain part of the most radical network of legal professionals in the United States.

Don’t miss your opportunity to connect with other new radical lawyers and benefit from their experiences. The Next Gen Committee actively builds the leadership of the NLG by making the Guild a place where recent graduates can network and support each other in finding work and collaborating on projects. Next Gen members assist new grads by answering questions about job-searching and grant-writing, pro bono or low bono work, contract work, billing, finding clients, social justice lawyering, or any of the many other questions facing a brand new attorney. If you’re interested in hearing more about Next Gen or being involved in their work, you can email nextgen@nlg.org.

Just as NLG members likely inspired and motivated you throughout law school, the Guild will be equally important to you when fighting for social justice as a people’s lawyer.  Please help the National Office keep in touch with you by letting us know the best way to contact you after graduation.  If you’re moving to a new place and seeking Guild contacts, we can make introductions and help you find local NLG members and committees. Build the Guild!

[1] Kelefah Sanneh, “Paint Bombs,” The New Yorker, May 13, 2013.

[2] Adam Cohen, Just How Bad Off Are Law School Graduates? Time, March 11, 2013.

How to Pay the Bills Without Selling Your Soul
By Lynne Williams, Golden Gate University School of Law NLG Graduate, Former NLG Executive Vice President and Northeast Regional Vice President

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Lawyering is a second, or I should probably say third, career for me. I was 48 when I graduated from law school, and a single parent of a ten-year-old son. In no way was I pressured to apply to any law firm, no matter what the level of prestige. I assume no one in my school’s career services thought I would ever get an offer, and certainly no professor or staff who knew me well thought I would ever accept an offer, even if one was forthcoming.

So, I needed to create my own path and to this day it’s been a constant source of pleasure, surprise, frustration, disappointment and, overall, much satisfaction.

Creativity is at the heart of identifying your own path. For me creativity was a combination of what I like to do, what people need and how I can combine those two categories in a practical sense. I had done three clinics when in law school, two Constitutional law clinics and one public interest clinic, and found both of them to be interesting, educational and rewarding. In the Con law clinics we worked on lawsuits against nursing homes that were force-drugging the elderly residents. My placement for the public interest clinic was at an agency that advocated for children with special educational needs. When I graduated, I decided that I liked both of these areas of law (of course, having not experienced any other area in a practical sense, I was limited in my decision making!) and should pursue them.

Then reality kicked in. There was no way I could afford to open a solo practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. So my son and I packed up and moved to Maine, and why Maine is certainly a story in itself. However, in short, I was leaving California, forcing my little boy to leave a place that he loved, a place of such beauty and outdoor opportunities. I was determined to take him to a place that was not only affordable, but just as beautiful as where we were leaving. I found it here.

Your Alumni Directory is Your Friend

Upon arriving in Maine, I pulled out my alumni directory and found that 7 Golden Gate University Law alums lived in Maine. I called the first one and got her on the phone—not voice mail, but her. I introduced myself, said I had just moved to Maine and was doing informational interviews with GGU Law alums to get the lay of the legal land. She said she and some others had a contract with the state to conduct special education due process hearings and they were looking for an additional hearing officer. So I was taken onboard and for five years worked at this very rewarding, part-time gig.

Non-Legal Work

My income from the hearing officer work was sporadic, and to supplement it I took a part-time job on a two-year grant-funded project, researching best practices for home health care workers who worked with children with disabilities. When that project ended, I answered an ad for a half-time employee at Maine’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. I was hired and for three years I recruited, trained and supervised volunteers for this wonderful program.

At this point, I hadn’t taken the bar yet, since these were all jobs that did not require bar admittance. And they were fairly well-paying, the CASA one even coming with benefits although it was only part-time. Don’t write off non-lawyer jobs! Would you rather spend your work week doing document search in some stuffy conference room—a lawyer job—or spend the same time supervising volunteers who help abused kids and figuring out how to get children with disabilities appropriate educational services? To me, there’s only one answer to that question.

Word of mouth is the best way to get these jobs. My alumni directory led to the first one; a neighborhood woman led to the research job; and my boss at the research job turned me on to the CASA job since the Executive Director. Networking is key!

It is worth noting that there are freelance writing jobs available, both legal and non-legal, that might appeal to you. Last year I wrote a 10,000 word e-book on special education law and was paid a flat fee for it. For more on ways to find projects, see the Resources section below.

Court Appointed Work

I finally took the bar exam and passed. I appeared to be the oldest person there with the exception of a 76-year-old gentleman who had practiced law in Nevada, starting his practice before there was a bar exam. He had retired to Maine, fished for two weeks and decided he needed to go back to work. He was required to sit for the bar and I sure hope he passed.

I decided to move on from CASA, since as a state employee I couldn’t practice in state court, and I wanted to open my own litigation practice. I would have loved to continue with the hearing officer contract, but the school district attorneys had declared me to be too “pro-family” (not in the way the right characterizes it!) and the Department decided I was more aggravation than it was worth. I needed to find clients fast.

Most states have public defenders offices, but some do not, Maine included. I got onto the roster for court-appointed criminal defense work, representing indigent defendants. This work has its upside and its downside. The downside is that there is a cap on the total fee for a case, depending on the level of the charge, and that fee only made sense if one negotiated for the best plea for a client. Therefore, it made no financial sense to go to trial.

However, the work is constitutionally important and well worth doing. And since so few attorneys actually take these cases to trial, any attorney who does go to trial instantly receives attention, often media attention if it involves a particularly “media worthy” charge. Remember, I don’t practice in a large city. In my experience, indigent defense work quite often results in paying client work involving the same or similar charges. Defendants are always seeking attorneys who won’t take the easy way out.

About two years after starting my practice, I was finally able to fulfill my dream of litigating a constitutional issue in a criminal trial arena. There was a sit-in along the highway in an adjacent town, with the protestors trying to stop the widening and straightening of the road, which would require removal of numerous trees including a historically significant horse chestnut. Protestors sat in trees and chained themselves to trees and refused to disperse. You know the drill—arrested for criminal trespass. One of the defendants was a friend and asked me to defend him. Along with another attorney, a fellow NLG member, we defended 10 activists at trial, proudly losing, but not until we raised the free speech issue. The judge even allowed one of the paintings of the chestnut tree that an artist activist created to hang in the courtroom during her testimony.

Five years later, the activist who had initially contacted me about the sit-in case told me that he was applying for a permit for an anti-war march in the state capital and the police were requiring a $2500 fee plus insurance. This case, Sullivan v. Augusta, had a long history in both state and federal court, but suffice it to say that it established some sound constitutional principles, at least in the First Circuit. I suppose the lesson you should take from this is that constitutional issues are not just litigated by national civil rights organizations but also by sole practitioners. The NLG is filled with such folks, some who do it sporadically and some who pretty much specialize, so the work is out there. The support I have received from these attorneys, through the NLG Mass Defense Committee, is incredible and invaluable. While my solo work in this area is financially a pass-the-hat situation, when the Sullivan case went to federal court I partnered with the Maine ACLU, which was both a learning experience and a financially rewarding one, since I was able to recover attorney’s fees from the federal court. However, that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken the chance and brought the initial Sullivan suit in state court.

Find an Early Niche

I found my niche even before going to law school. In fact, I went to law school to learn more about my niche. Unfortunately law school taught me nothing about my niche; fortunately, volunteering did. My niche was and, to a certain extent, continues to be special education law. My own son, now 26, has a disability and the reason I went to law school was to become an expert in special education law.

What is an early niche? It is the semi-specialty that will make you known in your professional and geographic community. An early niche is not necessarily a specialty that you will pursue during your entire career, although you might. In addition to visibility, an early niche will lead you towards other related areas of law. Working in special education law, I found that it would be very helpful for me to learn about probate law as well as the federal American’s with Disabilities Act. Learning probate law led me to take on clients seeking guardianship of their adult child with disabilities. My knowledge of the ADA led to me becoming local Maine counsel for out-of-state attorneys who specialize in ADA suits throughout the country. A local niche is all about word getting out and around!


I have a Ph.D. in social psychology and did my dissertation on conflict resolution. I believe that alternative, non-legalistic dispute resolution, such as mediation, is one of the most effective ways of resolving conflicts, particularly those involving families, neighbors, students and other parties who have a relationship, no matter how negative.

Mediation training is widely available, through CLE’s offered by many state bar associations, as well as through national institutes. There are also numerous webinars available. If you are interested in becoming a mediator, my advice would be to get as much hands-on practice as possible. Mediation requires strong listening and interpersonal skills, best acquired live. That said, however, meeting whatever credit hours you need to get to become a mediator in your state can easily be supplemented by archived and live webinars.

There are multiple paths to take towards becoming either a full-time mediator or using mediation as just one part of your professional work. Many states require mediation for certain types of civil litigation, including personal injury, real estate, small claims and general civil actions. Often the court system maintains a roster of mediators from which the parties choose. The requirements differ by state but, at least from experience in my state, a place for a new mediator to start would be small claims mediation. In my state, the court schedules mediators to be present on small claims days and the judge will request that those parties who are disputing the debt meet with the mediator. Other areas requiring mediation in many states are family law and probate law.

Alternatively, you may choose to do private mediation instead of, or in addition to, government sponsored mediation. One program that offers mediation to clients is Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, with programs in many states. In my current state the program offers services to clients on either a pro bono or reduced rate fee, so there is the possibility of at least some income. From my own experience, many pro bono or reduced rate clients become subsequent paying clients.

Local Appearance Companies

Particularly in the area of creditor collections, there are national collection firms that contract with local attorneys. I have done some of this work when my regular legal work was slow. It usually involves appearing at a small claims hearing on behalf of the out-of-state entity and, if the debtor fails to show up, getting a default judgment and, if the debtor does show up, meeting with the debtor about establishing a payment plan and/or mediating or even doing a trial on that day.

Trials are few and far between. Usually the debtor doesn’t contest the amount due and a judgment is entered. Sometimes, however, the attorney must meet with the debtor and try to work out a payment plan or go to mediation. I live in a relatively poor state and my heart went out to the debtors that appeared in court. At times I felt guilty about doing this type of work, and I still don’t do much of it. However, no debtor was every nasty or hostile to me and more than once a debtor told me that finallythere was someone that they could negotiate with face-to-face.

This work pays, on average, $50 per appearance and there are a number of companies that are in this field. The only one I have worked with is www.appearanywhere.com.

Go Rural

I moved to a rural community because it is affordable. Once here, I discovered that even small cities, like Portland, Maine are filled with lawyers. Yet the rural communities in my state, as well as in other states, are suffering an access to justice crisis. One of the poorest and most rural counties in Maine—Piscataquis County—has 17,000 residents, and 17 attorneys, one of which is the state court judge. By contrast, Knox County, a semi-rural county only 90 minutes from Portland, has 39,950 residents and 138 attorneys, three of which are judges. I don’t need to do the math for you, rural communities need our services.

Rural lawyers practice the law that rural folks need, not the law that large corporations want. Some lawyers in my town and surrounding communities limit themselves to one area of law, usually real estate. Others are more expansive, as I am. I represent a number of local restaurants, artists and other small businesses, for whom I draft LLC documents and employee handbooks. I have educated myself on trust and estate law through taking some highly focused CLE seminars, have become the “go to” attorney for special needs trusts, and often those clients have other legal matters that they need handled. I choose not to do bankruptcy law, but there is certainly a need out there for attorneys who include it in their practice. I took on one foreclosure case for an ongoing client mainly because I have such anger at the banks in this country. I spent countless hours figuring out the facts of the case, got some great sample documents from lawyers throughout the country, submitted 28 pages of discovery requests and, suddenly, Wells Fargo Bank capitulated. We won: my client kept her home and the bank wrote off three years of unpaid mortgage payments. They count on folks not defending against foreclosure, but that takes lawyers willing to take the cases.

I have always used a sliding scale but, with a few exceptions, I charge all of my private clients something. The exception is my political legal work which is pass-the-hat to pay the expenses. The “something” from a private client might be $50 or $25 an hour, or just $25, or it might be a dozen eggs or a free massage or some gardening work. When I do get someone who can pay full freight (my current fee is $200 an hour) I explain to them that they are supporting legal services for someone who has not been as financially lucky as they have been. They usually like that.

Think Ahead But Go With the Flow

I’ll jump right in with this—marijuana law is the wave of the future. Maine legalized medical marijuana in 1999. In 2009, the state passed a law allowing caregivers, formerly only family members or housemates of a patient, to service 5 independent patients. Caregiving became a business and since I had defended a number of patients in the early days of the medical marijuana law, my name was out there and caregivers began contacting me to create LLC’s for them.

Fast forward to 2015: I just took on an out-of-state client, a venture capitalist who wants to invest in a caregiving operation. The caregivers he will be investing in have been doing just fine for years, but it is not medical marijuana that is in his sights, but recreational marijuana. With four states and DC having legalized recreational marijuana, Maine is thought to be one of the next states to do so. Early this year, I was retained to work with legalization activists in drafting the people’s initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, so I know what’s in it better than anyone. If it passes, I have no doubt that I will have clients calling to address their legal needs in what will be a whole new economic sector in our state.

I never planned to work in this area of law. In fact, this area of law didn’t exist when I graduated from law school. I drifted into it quite by accident. I guess the thrust of this section is to plan, but stay open.

A couple of pieces of advice if you are interested in this field of law. Join the NORML legal panel at www.norml.org. For many years I was the only Maine attorney on the panel and I got lots of referrals from it. There is an annual fee, but each year I earned back that fee many times over. The legal support from NORML attorneys is incredible and there is an excellent brief bank. Early on, most of my referrals were for criminal defense. Now most of my referrals are questions regarding the medical marijuana law and requests for LLC’s and other business entities. For example, I recently prepared business documents for a doctor opening a clinic and had to learn all there is to learn about HIPAA in order to prepare patient notices, employee notices and the like.

Second piece of advice: forget about the states that have already legalized recreational marijuana. Big law has taken over the legal arenas in those states. Stay in a state, or move to a state, that has medical marijuana but not yet legal recreational marijuana and create your reputation. Few attorneys in smaller states work in this area and you will stand out.

Lightning Round!

Do I need a web site? Maybe if you are in a large metropolitan area, but I have never had a web site. Nor do I subscribe to lawyer referral services, with the exception of NORML (see above).

Do you charge for every thing? Not at all. I am not a phone person so in order to discourage phone calls and encourage emails I charge for phone calls and not for reading emails. My email box fills up daily, but I can review at my leisure, as long as it is within a 24 hour window within which I guarantee my clients I will respond. My phone rarely rings. I don’t charge for travel or mileage within a forty mile radius.

What about an office? I had an office for 9 years, but now work out of my home. If I need to meet clients, I meet with them in a conference room at the court house. Just recently, my town opened a facility with desks, phones and conferences rooms that can be reserved daily or even hourly, so I will be utilizing that.

Do you have specialized legal software? No. I use Open Office and find that it works for any of the documents that I do. If you do decide to practice bankruptcy law, however, I advise that you invest in specialized bankruptcy software.

What about electronics? I work off of a MacBook Air, an ipad and an iphone. No client ever knows if I’m in my office or not. Most of them don’t even know I don’t have an office. And most wouldn’t care one way or the other, as long as I address their issues.

What about business cards? Yes, yes and more yes! Yesterday I got an email from someone who had an old business card of mine, one I had printed up years ago when I was in another town with another phone number. But the email is still the same and so now I have a new client who held onto my card all that time.

Final Thoughts

When my son was 12, I presented at career day at his school. At the reception for the kids and the presenters, one of my son’s classmates commented that he must be rich because his mom was a lawyer. My son shook his head, and said, “No, we’re not. She’s the kind of lawyer that helps people.” I live by that motto and you can too. It just takes some thought and a lot of hard work, and switching gears when something isn’t working, and not valuing your skills by what you charge, as well as charging what you’re worth when the client can pay it and being open to opportunities as they present themselves….  and I could go on and on. But you get the outline of the picture, now you just need to color it in!

Please feel free to email me with questions, LWilliamsLaw@earthlink.net.