To the Editor:
In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, Samuel Moyn is correct that introspection about the purpose and ethical objectives of law schools is called for (“Law Schools Are Bad for Democracy,” The Chronicle Review, December 16). But Moyn also missteps, resorting to navel gazing as he contemplates “What is law school for? How does it serve the individual aspirations of some of our most gifted young people, and the high ideals for social justice that many of them care about?”
A limited view leads Moyn to a mistaken conclusion. Contrary to his lament, there are institutions that have countered the charge that law schools “mainly ... reproduce social hierarchy.” (This is a critique that Moyn ascribes to Harvard Law’s Duncan Kennedy, but it must instead be credited to Charles Hamilton Houston, who understood Howard Law School’s mission to be producing lawyers that would wield law as a instrument of social justice and up-end Jim Crow in America. And of course this is what Houston and his successor Thurgood Marshall did.)
Moyn need not draw upon lessons from history to discover that not all law school’s suffer from the anemic vision that he believes compromises Yale Law School. Moyn could today look to the example of CUNY School of Law, where, since 1983, legal education has been producing talented and committed public interest lawyers, a reflection of the school’s motto: “Law in the Service of Human Needs.”
CUNY Law, whose founding Dean Charles Halpern left Yale Law School to launch this experiment, embodies the alternative approach to legal education for which Moyn pines. The widely-praised curriculum combines training in legal theory, skills, and ethics. It is consistently ranked among the nation’s top-ten law schools for its clinical education program. It is unrivaled in its training and placement of public interest practitioners. CUNY Law is not at all an institution by or for the elite: Both its faculty and student body are diverse, many coming directly out of the communities they expect to serve as lawyers.
I am a member of the CUNY School of Law class of 1987, and I credit my legal education there with having provided me an intellectual and ethical foundation. My class is representative of what it looks like to have trained lawyers in the service of human needs. We direct the ACLU of Michigan and the Innocence Project. We are judges, public defenders, and prosecutors. We head our own public interest law firms. Among us are teachers, social workers, and artists. We sit on city councils and town boards, and even host weekly radio programs. Law training need not be a straight-jacket that serves the powerful. It can also be a foundation upon which lawyers build their capacities to be practitioners, activists, cultural workers, and citizens.
If Moyn was aiming to understand how law schools fuel democracy, he did not look hard enough. Somehow CUNY School of Law eluded him. No worries. I’d be happy to visit my alma mater with him, where he can see first hand what a law school committed to the best of democracy looks like. I’ll even spring for the Metro North ticket.
Martha S. Jones
Professor of history
Johns Hopkins University