Remaking law school with moral component

June 25, 2008|By Karen H. Rothenberg

After almost a decade as a law school dean, I have learned that I can count on two stories involving our school to appear in the news media every year. The first is publication of the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings. The other is the announcement of skyrocketing first-year salaries for the small percentage of graduates heading to work at large national firms.

Unfortunately, these two widely publicized stories perpetuate some of the worst stereotypes about the legal profession - it is a cutthroat, big-money game where success is easily quantified, whether by the number of ranking spots your law school climbs or the size of your first paycheck.

Other headlines document further challenges. Tales of scandal, greed and malfeasance by lawyers lead to a general distrust of the profession. Accounts of modern litigation describe cases fought on a terrain of moral compromise, with scorched-earth tactics between overly zealous advocates. Stories of people living in poverty recount their inability to gain access to lawyers, courts and justice.

We send our new graduates into this challenging environment only partially equipped to deal with what lies ahead. Legal instruction today retains much of the classic "case dialogue method" made famous by John Houseman's portrayal of the stern Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase 35 years ago. But in the process of learning to argue a case from any point of view, students often report they lose their ethical moorings. Great students learn to separate their sense of justice and fairness from their doctrinal understanding of law and procedure. Their knowledge of how the law can be used to advance their client's interest may overtake their sense of what is right. Students graduate as highly skilled technical practitioners who can clearly see the bottom line, but who may lack the vision to look further.

There has been a significant amount of self-examination within the legal academy since the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published its highly influential report, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, last winter. The Carnegie report called upon law schools to teach legal analysis but also to adopt new measures to better prepare students for their careers. The first of these measures - expanding opportunities for students to practice law while still in school - is a strategy already adopted by many of the nation's leading law schools. Maryland, Georgetown and American University all have well-established clinical law programs that rank among the nation's top 10.

More revolutionary is the Carnegie recommendation that law schools equip their students to develop an ethical and moral professional identity. Some schools balk at this approach, positing that a student's moral character is formed by the time he or she reaches law school or that teaching the rules of the lawyers' canon of ethics is enough. But in recognition of the profound need for visionary civic leadership and courageous moral action in today's legal system, the University of Maryland School of Law is embracing this call to action.

Thanks to a $1.6 million investment from the Fetzer Institute, the UM School of Law has recently launched a pioneering initiative that will emphasize ethics, moral formation and leadership development for lawyers. Through a coordinated series of curricular and co-curricular offerings, public service projects and clinical programs here and abroad, we will equip our students with new tool and analytical frameworks for confronting these most pressing challenges and responsibilities of our profession.

Lawyers, to be sure, are representatives of their clients' interests. But they are much more than that. Lawyers are, as the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct state, "public citizen[s] having special responsibility for the quality of justice." By equipping future lawyers with the legal knowledge, leadership skills and habits of reflection to fulfill all these roles, law schools can become catalysts for renewal and transformation in our nation's legal system.

Karen H. Rothenberg is the dean and Marjorie Cook professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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