Law in Contemporary Society

“Law School for One, Please”: Designing a Purpose-Driven Legal Education

-- By IjahalaPottinger - 15 Apr 2024


For many law students, it is easy to succumb to the conventional narrative – the pursuit of prestigious Big Law careers and rigorous adherence to established norms, expectations, and markers of success. What makes this conformity an attractive choice? Is it the product of intentional reflection and measured decision-making? Is it the path of least resistance? Or is it something else?

Given law school’s developmental significance in one’s journey toward becoming a legal practitioner, students must leverage their academic passions and interests to design an intentional legal education that will inform a purpose-driven legal practice rather than conform to predefined scripts of success. This essay seeks to explore the disillusionment associated with traditional legal education, highlight the challenges first-year law students face, and articulate a vision for embracing authenticity and individuality in law school through a personalized program of study.

Law School as a Mystification Exercise

Often romanticized as a bastion of academic pursuit and professional advancement, law school falls short of these lofty expectations for many students in reality. During the three years between my undergraduate graduation and law school matriculation, I yearned to return to the classroom to uncover how legal theory interacts with policy to create and reproduce social power and inequities. Though that has yet to be my experience, I must remind myself that I am both grateful and privileged to belong to the law school community. For anyone, especially those of us who identify as first-generation, pursuing a legal education unlocks opportunities and resources many people can only dream of accessing. On my worst days, this realization is my sole motivating factor. Nevertheless, I must approach my legal education with humility and appreciation for the platform to pursue my aspirations and pave the way for future generations in my family and community to do the same.

From a young age, I have been interested in how race, class, education, and politics interact with the legal system to perpetuate socioeconomic inequities. I attended a pre-law magnet high school where I became passionate about the compounding harm imposed on low-income communities of color due to racial disparities in mass incarceration. Learning about institutional racism, prosecutorial discretion, and transformative justice, I imagined myself pursuing a public service career to mitigate racial injustice in the sentencing of juvenile offenders. Before beginning law school, I understood the journey's rigorous nature. However, after 15 years in the making, I was taken aback by how strangely disconnected I felt from my reasons for pursuing a law degree so early in my first year. As Duncan Kennedy writes, I am probably disillusioned by traditional legal pedagogy emphasizing unconnected legal problems in the mystified context of legal reasoning in isolation from actual lawyering experience. When my discomfort becomes too burdensome, I search for community online. Before long, I am down a rabbit hole of academic articles analyzing how the disconnect between classroom learning and legal practice exacerbates feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt among first-year law students. A consensus that the rigid curriculum and competitive environment stifle creativity and breed a profound sense of disillusionment emerges. I find the description for a course entitled, “(Dis)illusionment for Young Lawyers” at Harvard. Is this solace or a warning?

The Miseducation of the First-Year Law Student

For many first-year law students, the transition to law school is a daunting experience. Overemphasis on grades, rankings, and prestigious career paths creates a suffocating environment of intense competition and persistent anxiety. Grading reproduces a hierarchy system but gives students little to no feedback on their comprehension or analytical skills. The result is that students experience their grades as mostly arbitrary and unrelated to their expended effort, total understanding of the learned topics, interest in the material, or level of satisfaction with the class and professor. Pursuing traditional academic success in the law school environment does not always align with individual interests or values and fails to communicate much about the student. Compounding this issue is that first-year law students hardly have the time to think critically about what success looks like for them. Yet, the pressure to conform to institutional expectations is immense as students fear what will become of them if they do not fulfill these expectations. The allure of Big Law firms and corporate success is enough to compel students to conform to institutional expectations. It also overshadows alternate areas of interest and career paths that should be considered prestigious. This leaves students trapped in a cycle of conformity and self-doubt – before the golden handcuffs.

Imagining a Purpose-Driven, Personalized Approach to Legal Education

Understanding these challenges, I must resist the status quo of legal education and seek to reclaim my academic agency by making my legal education excellent in the way I need it to be. Realizing this vision requires examining my values, interests, and goals and aligning my law school experience with these personal principles. I came to law school to learn to apply legal skills to advocate for social equity and protect traditionally underserved individuals’ civil and human rights. I will return to law school this fall to continue this mission. As I envision how this purpose manifests in tangible practice, I intend to focus on areas of law that align with my social justice passions and connect with professors and practitioners who fight systemic injustice, champion marginalized voices, and advance positive social change.

This will be easier said than done, as I often worry about what I “should” do rather than what I want to do. Nevertheless, I must ignore the status quo that tells me to apply to Law Review because it will help land a judicial clerkship or to take Corporations because it’s great for Big Law. I am the only one who will tell me to take Law, Power, and Social Change to explore my interests in the intersection of law, policy, and systemic inequity. It is up to me to sharpen my wits in what collaboration, empathy, and integrity look like in legal practice in Lawyer Leadership and the Mediation Clinic. I have the power to choose Planning Your Practice to continue critically reflecting on what my purpose-driven legal practice looks like. While traditional law school pedagogy may not suit me, I must empower myself to define the content of my license alongside people who will help me uncover exactly what I want my future law practice to be about.

A definite improvement. The question, "What?" is prefaced rather than answered, but that's fine. This is an acutely-reasoned summation about where you are (or were, before the university self-exploded). Law school, the one you alone are in, continues.

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r4 - 20 May 2024 - 13:43:52 - EbenMoglen
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