The general disengagement experienced by many students is likely reflective of generational trends; specifically, I believe it is the result of a lack of appreciation for the relevance of law school to the practice of law. Law school, unlike medical school, produces generalists. As a result, newly minted J.D.’s have tremendous flexibility, but the reality is that even at graduation, many students still may not know what their practice area will be. If we don’t have a clue where we will ultimately end up, we are told not to worry, “you don’t really learn how to practice law in law school.” With this mindset, it is easy to see how one may (admittedly, short-sightedly) detach from the material being taught – do only what is necessary to earn the degree and get a job. Law school becomes a means to an end, something that must be endured. From what I can tell, there is a grain of truth to this frame of mind. Law school won’t teach us the in’s and out’s of the practice we eventually find ourselves in, but it does equip us to think, write and talk like lawyers. Most importantly, though, law school is our first real exposure to what it means to be a part of the legal community. As law students, we must put off believing that professional life begins after graduation, we entered the legal profession the day we began our legal studies. By impressing upon us the responsibility we bear to our future clients, and to the profession as a whole, we may find the classroom more relevant and ourselves more engaged.
A couple of weeks ago, a professor directed us to a blog that collected tips for voir dire. Last on the list, but certainly not least, was “Remember the Majesty.” The point was that though voir dire may be routine for many lawyers, there should be a reverence about the process and for the system which supports it. In my mind, we law students would do well to remember the majesty of the profession we have entered. While we may not all be starry-eyed about law school, we ought to realize that at this point we are very near entering practice which will affect lives and livelihoods in profound ways on a myriad of levels; no matter what our area of practice turns out to be, we will benefit ourselves and others through our breadth and depth of knowledge. Perhaps there is another way to instill this sense of reverence and responsibility in us, beyond a two-hour compulsory Professional Responsibility course. Lawyers take an oath when being admitted to the bar, why not take an oath when entering law school?
Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending Charles University as a visiting post-graduate scholar. Something I will never forget is the matriculation ceremony my fellow students and I went through at the start of the term. The ceremony took place in a building that dates to the fourteenth century, and possessed all the pomp and circumstance you would expect from one of Europe’s oldest universities (founded in 1348). Since the ceremony was mostly in Czech, I did not understand exactly what was being said, but there was no mistake in what I was doing. The purpose of the ceremony was the solemn act of taking an academic oath; we each in turn touched the University Mace (pictured), declared “I promise,” and shook hands with the Dean. The Rector closed the ceremony by impressing upon us the importance of our oath and the resolutions we had made. It was a powerful experience.
Perhaps instituting a matriculation ceremony and oath for all new law students would help to instill in us the gravity of the endeavor we are undertaking. It won’t reverse a trend in a generation, but it may shift our focus just enough to make a difference.
Quod bonum, felix, faustum fortunamque eveniat.