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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Law at the Crossroads - The Profession Embarks on a Hero’s Journey

I have blogged about learning skills and their relationship to doctrine on multiple occasions, and will continue to do so when appropriate. Today, however, I am in a reflective mood because I was recently asked to give the keynote speech at our graduation celebration. Three years ago our current dean implemented a process where students select a professor to speak at the winter graduation celebration. My good friend Peter Lake was chosen by the students, but he could not do it because he was on a cruise ship with his wife. In yet another example of how much Peter is smarter than me, I was not conflicted out, and happened to be the student’s second choice.

I found it very humbling to be in this position, but as I thought through the messages that I could share, I began to realize that the challenges I am facing right now as a member of the legal education world mirror, in many ways, the same challenges my students face as they become lawyers is a world that is changing more rapidly each day.  I also came to realize that I must adopt the same attitude about the changes in my world that I want the students to have about the challenges they are getting ready to face. In a very real sense I became the student again, with this task as my teacher. 

I realized that I wanted them to understand it is always about the relationships we form - the human connection between us that defines the work of what it means to be a lawyer. This is a people business, and must remain so if it is to continue to guarantee the viability of the rule of law in the 21st century. Unfortunately people are often the first to suffer during times of change. I wanted each of them to believe that a focus on the people in their lives, personal and professional, will keep them on the path to both a successful and fulfilling career in the law - while also doing more than anything else to insure that the world inherited by the next generation is one where the rule of law still exists in a recognizable form. I believe deeply that we must have that same personal focus in legal education as well, it is actually a reflection of how I approach each day at work.

We live in a time where transformation is now the norm, not the exception. Stability is a memory old folks have, and survival is always on the table. I have watched my law school colleagues struggle with this new reality, with all of the reactions one might expect, from outright denial to predicting the end of the world - along with everything in between. Turmoil threatening the core of an institution’s sense of self will bring out the best and worst in humans - each of us has had an opportunity to see it on full display over the last few years. I chose to see possibilities and opportunities while preparing for the wolf at the door, think of it as a type of realistic optimism. It has helped me to identify a people first attitude which has guided my leadership decisions, and it is the one I use every day. This focus on the human question has helped me successfully navigate a time of struggle, both morally and compassionately. It has also created conflict with others who are driven by different concerns, but that is the nature of what it means to advocate for something.

It is a hard time to be a law professor, an even harder time to be on the staff at a law school, and a frightening time to consider becoming a lawyer. Everywhere one looks the process that has created lawyers for centuries is under attack. Some of those attacks are valid, others are not. Unfortunately this environment has created an opportunity for bullies and ambush predators to set about attacking the very fabric of what makes a legal education in the United States unique - the historical focus of an entire institution on the creation of the next generation of leaders for their world. 

At the same time, some of their complaints are valid, and law schools can feel like the best buggy whip making factory in the world, while the rest of the world abandons the horse in favor of the car. The real answer is of course more complex than most realize, and is very much a situationally dependent question, with the nature of the faculty, makeup of the student body, and commitment of the alumni all a part of the equation. Few law schools do the “vision thing” or “mission statement” well, and yet there is a need, as never before in the history of legal education, for brand specific identification and application of resources behind a sustainable model for legal education. 

Law schools at their best are a place of promise, where dreams are realized, futures are created, and professional lives begin. At their worst they become a factory where students serve as “income producing units” for the good of the University. We should all have, as a core value in academia, the commitment to an ideal that the University exists for the students, not the other way around. If not we are nothing more than another corporation running a business and making a profit off the very backs of the students we entice. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but only if you are up front about it. Fortunately that is not what most law schools sell, and it is also not the reality of most institutions, although one could successfully argue that it is fast become a more acceptable alternative in the wake of very real budgetary restrictions.

Fear stalks the hallways of many law schools now. Professors hide behind their tenure, staff look for new jobs, and the students, our most precious resource, suffer. It is past time for this to stop. Past time for our profession to collectively stand up and confront as a group, these challenges. Many of us know what should be done, but we often remain silent and safe, after all, change is hard, and law schools must fundamentally change if they are to not only survive but flourish in the new realities of Higher Education and the Profession of Law. Our potential future as a profession is bright, and our promise immeasurable if we do so. Lawyers guarantee the rule of law, constrain the powerful, and create an environment where all of us have a chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. 

Historically law schools were designed to create critical thinkers. They need to be retooled to create critical thinkers who can use their superior analytical reasoning skills to speak on behalf of another - to advocate. To confront power when necessary, to stand when all others bend the knee, to matter in this world. While making this change law schools must also ensure that professional identity remains the core of the law school experience - otherwise we might as well be training business people and accountants.

Unfortunately university administrations are not always willing to listen, faculty are terrified by change that upsets the balance of power within the institution, and the only thing worse than no plan is a good plan executed poorly. The realities of the Legal Profession, when considered in light of the long term changes to higher education, compel me to order my thoughts and present them in a place where they might be considered by others - hence this, and subsequent, blog posts. 

Much of Higher Education, by “worshiping at the altar of regressive analytics and best business practices” is losing the very essence of what it means to teach and mentor adults as they become not only the promise, but the once and future leaders of our world. We need to be smart about how we use data to run our schools, but we must never let data RUN the school. Lawyering is a people business, first, last and always. We cannot lose sight of our responsibilities to the profession, our alumni, and future students. It is imperative that we have an intelligent conversation about what law schools must become.

These issues have come into sharper focus as I reflected on what the students graduating this fall have meant to me. How they have changed my life, and how, hopefully I have made an impact on their’s as well. I understand the relationship that grows between the student and the professor, and I have been privileged to walk in the shoes of Obi Wan Kenobi, Merlin, Gandalf - and every other mentor who has guarded the gates of transformation and guided young heroes as they begin their journey, their quest. I cherish that role. It is such a gift to be trusted by these students. It is also a responsibility, a calling for every professor and administrator in higher education to confront the darkness threatening this most precious creation of the Western World, the University.

For it was the University, the place of Higher Education, that pulled us from the Darkness into the Light - making possible the flowering of the tree of liberty and the concept of the “rule of law.” Something which our law students have made their own internal value over the last three years. A large part of educational experience is the professor and student relationship - but it is not the only part. Administrators, staff, personnel - we all work together as best we can to create a place where the magic of learning and transformation occur. We are all, in a very real sense, together on a hero’s journey - defining our life in the way we treat one another and the way in which we care for the world. 

The structure and day to day working of any university has more of an impact on the learning experience than most folks realize. Professors cannot teach when the administrative functions of the school do not work. Fear freezes the ability to think, strangles the creative genius in each of us, and will, if we let it, make us subservient to its desires. We teach our students to use the law to deal with the fears of their clients. To advocate, in the original sense of the word, to speak for others.

In subsequent posts I will begin to do as Dr. Phil suggests, “putting verbs in my sentences” as we share a conversation about how the 21st century law school can once again become a “shining light upon the hill.” Till then Happy Holidays and peace be on you this Holiday season.

All the best,


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