Review: Admit that the Waters Around you Have Grown: Change and Legal Education

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By Emily Grant from Washburn University School of Law

“I teach first year law students,” I explain to my non-lawyer friends and relatives, “when they’re super sweet and eager and ready to change the world.” Inevitably, someone in the conversation (and <shame> sometimes it’s me, if I think I can get a laugh) says “well… law school will beat that feeling out of them eventually.”

Mari J. Matsuda, professor of law at the University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa, William S. Richardson School of Law, believes that law school should instead reaffirm and nurture that drive to make the world a better place. Professor Matsuda spoke last fall at the Addison C. Harris Lecture Series at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and her remarks were recently published by the Indiana Law Journal. They are worth reading.

She begins with a compelling narrative about the pressing social problems of inequality, unsustainability, and war, and the law, she asserts, is inextricably linked to solving these global issues. Using the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Professor Matsuda explains that the law “was born on dark roads in rural towns where courageous acts forced the arc of history to make its turn. Crisis created law, temporarily resolving the crisis and setting the stage for the next one–this one.” Each legal fight, at the global, national, state, or municipal level, can affect our lives significantly. “Lawyers are the champions we will send forth to represent us in that arena. We need good ones.” Indeed.

As to our roles as law professors, Professor Matsuda notes that “[t]raining the cadre that will save our planet might seem like an outsized ambition, but we cannot turn from it.” She offers her vision for an educational package that will raise up a generation of lawyers who can solve the social problems of today and tomorrow:

  • Traditional lawyer skills of rhetoric and manipulation of legal materials — case analysis, statutory interpretation, advocacy
  • Clinical skills, with an emphasis on negotiation as being most important
  • A “radically interdisciplinary toolkit”—knowing enough to ask useful questions, call in experts, and identify the knowledge paths that require exploration
  • “Knowledge of history, economics, empirical / social science methodology, literature, science / technology, statistics, comparative theology, geography, anthropology, political theory, moral philosophy, and social change / anti-subordination theory”
  • The capacity for utopian visioning—”The technique of getting big, audacious ideas on the table before tearing them down is important, as is the next step: evaluating ideas using critical thinking skills.”

Professor Matsuda acknowledges that the point is not to create a laundry list of readings or required courses (though she offers her own list of specific skills lawyers should have: read a financial statement, speak a language other than English, understand what the Federal Reserve Board does, memorize at least one poem by heart, among others). Instead, she urges that it is our jobs as professors to make our courses “rich with content useful to lawyers as leaders and change agents. It is our job to hold one another to standards of rigor in pedagogy and vitality in content.”

The essay is short, but packed with powerful truth that we all need to hear. It’s a big-picture conversation starter, asking us to envision and to implement changes in our classroom that will translate to changes in our society.

I’ll admit when I was browsing through articles to review for this column, I had about fifteen free minutes in between a three-hour faculty “mini-retreat” and a lecture I gave to remind clinic students how to write a good memo. This semester, more than any other time in my teaching career, I am feeling squeezed between meetings, and it’s so easy to lose sight of the students… the students that can and want to and should make a difference in the world. Professor Matsuda’s call to action—to incorporate today’s social problems into my teaching—was just the goosebump-filled reminder that I needed to feel renewed and excited about my profession, my students, frankly, and my role in the world.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning