In the days after Donald Trump issued his first travel ban, pro bono attorneys across the country were celebrated “like superheroes,” and the number of people applying to law school is increasing. Many of these applicants are seeking to arm themselves with a Juris Doctor degree to resist Trump’s agenda.
Unbeknownst to them, though, law schools are ruthlessly efficient at systematically changing the disposition of even the most passionate civil rights activists into apathetic and institutionalized corporate attorneys.
Over the past year, I have watched this phenomenon unfold firsthand. The majority of students I met at my law school orientation seemed genuinely interested in wanting to learn how to use their legal education to make the world a better place. From environmental protection to antiwar advocacy, there was hardly a social justice cause left unrepresented by my incoming class. Unfortunately, as we approach the start of our second year, the old aphorism is proving to be true: The first thing most of us lose in law school is the reason why we came.
If current employment trends continue, 80 percent of my peers will soon forgo the opportunity to use their legal education to help others and instead choose to work at a law firm to help maintain the $180,000 median starting salary top law school graduates are so proud to have. Yes, the two choices are mutually exclusive. Doing pro bono hours on the side hardly mitigates the damages of representing the likes of Chevron and Lockheed Martin. It’s easy to believe the burden of student debt is the most common reason for why so many well-intentioned law students give up on public interest careers, but the true reason is more foundational, and rooted in a legal education that fosters and rewards apathy.
This is in contrast to the popular narrative in which a legal education is supposed to give law students the tools to challenge racial, gender and sexual discrimination, protect families from being separated at the border and push for criminal legal reform; when instead, our nation’s top law schools merely specialize in teaching professional indifference. Duncan Kennedy, a Harvard Law professor, explained how the standard legal curriculum “seems to consist of learning rules … while rooting for the occasional judge who seems willing to make them marginally more humane. The basic experience is of double surrender: to a passivizing classroom experience and to a passive attitude toward the content of the legal system.” Apathy is the natural consequence of this “passive attitude” that reduces people, history and context to a backdrop in an endless series of exercises designed to teach us how to detach the human experience from our “objective analysis” of the law.
For example, when we read a case about a coal-mining factory opening up next to a residential area, we are taught to resist our intuition of asking whether it is wrong for the coal company to pollute the neighborhood. Instead, we are conditioned to simply ignore socioeconomic inequities and racial undercurrents and make a legal determination that merely applies precedent to reach an efficient outcome. In doing so, we ignore the fact that established law is inconsistent — not based on any set principles, discriminates arbitrarily, and favors efficiency and the status quo over the dignity of individuals.
In the best-case scenario, this learned-apathy turns law students into neutral observers of injustice. At worse, they become gears and cogs in a system of injustice themselves. These outcomes reflect the grade-school premises we are taught to accept in law school: That the law is fundamentally good, that those who break it are fundamentally bad, and that our job as lawyers is simply to apply the law, not change it. These are inherently conservative notions that both liberals and conservatives learn to internalize in law school. Classroom debates rarely reflect the left vs. right divide we would expect them to. Instead, professors deny and de-emphasize the political character of legal decisions, and as a consequence, judges from both sides of the isle are religiously venerated in our classrooms, regardless of the impact their decisions may have had on the most vulnerable members of our society.
Only a small percentage of law students are able to counter this subtle indoctrination, and like Frankenstein’s monster, apathetic lawyers are soon created by a system in denial of the damages of its progeny. These apathetic lawyers value efficiency over justice, they commend impartiality in the face of oppression and they advocate for laws that are consistently applied, even if they are morally reprehensible. These lawyers occupy all three branches of our government and refuse to challenge the morality of the laws they are protecting.
To counter this trend, law schools must systematically change their curriculums to prioritize human dignity over legal continuity and empower students to use their legal education to help the disenfranchised, not merely grovel at the halls of the already powerful. Meanwhile, the thousands of law students who are enrolling in classes over the next few months must do everything they can to preserve the empathy that inspired them to pursue this career in the first place.
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