I had an email exchange with someone (not a law school student) the other day that raised some poignant issues relevant to us as law students.
First, allow me to quote this person:
“The other day, I attended Slavoj Zizek’s “God in Pain: Inversions of the Apocalypse,” part of the ALOUD author program offered through the Los Angeles Public Library. After what could only be a wonderful and invigorating discussion on God, belief and systems of belief (religions), the moderator, Jack Miles, made the perfunctory request for donations from audience members to support LAPL’s ALOUD and other free programs. Zizek enthusiastically picked up on the request and transformed it into a heartwarming argument for the support of such free programs, noting at one point that not only do these programs offer opportunities for cultural enrichment outside of the school system but it is exactly the need to counter the institution of education that support of and attendance to these free programs and forums – also completely open to the public – are so important. It may seem contradictory that Zizek, a tenured professor, would promote such a view, but, perhaps by way of (philosophical) explanation, Zizek also referenced Socrates, the father of philosophy, who stressed the importance of asking questions not only of others but of the self as a way to understand the problems at hand and to find answers to those problems.
Far be it for me to really attempt a satisfactory paraphrase of Zizek’s argument, I will simply mention now that some of these closing comments to the talk echo much of what seems to be a general criticism of the school system today. Words like “broken,” “corrupt,” and “need for reform” are generally associated with the school system, including a particularly haranguing news story that compared how university administration runs their school with how “hotel management” might and that accused colleges of selling “elitism” – the degree – without really equipping their students with skills necessary to confront life beyond school. The inadequacies of our schools are especially brought to light in an economic climate where the majority of graduating students are faced with heavy debt but without any job prospects or without jobs that pay well enough to pay off their debts.
In the end, one might be provoked to ask, When our schools cannot even promise the likelihood of earning a better living, what are they really good for?”
In law school, rarely if ever, are we asked to question the questions we are being asked, question what we are being taught, ask why we learn what we do, or challenge, well, anything at all. I have spent my time as a law student with the basic assumption that we learn what we do because it is applicable to our practice as lawyers and that it will lead to passing the bar, and getting a degree. Perhaps, even the first two assumptions cannot be supported by clear evidence these days.
Beyond this, if we do not ask and challenge what we are being taught and what we are learning, is this an education?
What happens when we don’t stop to ask the big why? What is it that we are learning beyond the nonsensical concepts like “thinking like a lawyer”? What does it do to our sense of self when we learn to argue all sides without self reflection, encouraged to ignore the broader world that has created the power imbalances between not only the opposing parties but the judges, legislators, and representative attorneys who play a role in the outcomes and consequences yet get siphoned out of our casebooks as non-influential entities – sometimes referenced by name, and sometimes not even? And, shouldn’t we start to wonder, what role do we play in this system of learning and becoming lawyers?
And, once we ask this question, shouldn’t we ask whether we should keep playing it, and if so, if we must continue to play it in the same way?
At times, our courses ask us to regurgitate information. Other times, we are asked to do “legal reasoning”, and part of this includes issue spotting and defending various arguments. However, say after a year or so or maybe less or maybe more, we become quite proficient at these “skills” (or at least hope that we do), is that enough? Does that provide us with an adequate legal education? Systematically, we do not consciously or critically question our role in our own legal training, our future role in the profession, or analyze what this legal training does to the way we think. Often, we adhere to the legal reasoning process as if it was the only one, the right one, and the best one.
It is so much easier and even intuitive to go with what “is” rather than question what “should be”.
What is the harm in challenging what we learn, our own basic assumptions, and the assumptions we are taught to make? I think that there is great harm when we do not ask and do notchallenge. Without self-awareness, don’t we risk becoming the mercenary lawyers so popular in fiction and literature (perhaps even real life)?
Further, perhaps you may wonder as I have, why does any of this legal education reform stuff matter anyway? Learn the language, learn the system, and get out. However, it seems this system has started to go towards a direction, and it has stopped asking itself why it is going there. It seems that the jobs do not exist to put a bandaid over the lack of a real education, and instead, we end up left adrift. It seems that beyond the ever-present feeling of self-defeat in incorporating a sense of ethics and values consistently into our educations, we also lack skills.
So then, what is it that we are learning, and what does this mean to our sense of self and the wider community that we are meant to serve?
And, why should we law students care what anyone else thinks about our legal education? Why should it matter at all what this one individual – not even affiliated with the legal institution – sitting at Slovaj Zizek’s lecture think? Aside from the practical aspect, that this individual, “the other”, will often be a future client, in theory, we benefit from allowing others to question our education and our role as law students and future lawyers.
If we never stop to think but just do, don’t we end up achieving a singular awareness, devoid of the complexities in the world that surrounds us, inhibited by an incubated legal education often separated from the wider world?
In this system in which we learn, some argue that we learn a language and a new way of thinking. We become a part of this enclosed system of rigorous training from the first day when we go through orientation and begin to learn the ropes. Some of us navigate it better than others. Some of us see more problems with it than others. However, if we are a part of this system and the system truly is “broken”, perhaps, it would help to have a different perspective from “the outside” to better see the problems within.
The public forum described by the individual in the quote is exactly the kind of open forum we need, and we need it in and outside of our schools and on and offline. It is time to ask the tough questions, and it is time we invite in others to help us find the answers.