We’ve done several stories about “law camps” — summer experiences where law schools charge people unreasonable amounts of money to “experience” law school for a few days or weeks. They are really bad ideas that seem designed to trick people into applying to law school and shake a little money out of them in the process. “Law camp” has about as much to do with actual law school as “summer camp” has to do with living in a traditional society as a hunter-gatherer.
Those programs are aimed at college students or mid-career professionals looking to get a “taste” of what it’s like to spend a lot of money for unmarketable skills. Now comes Marquette University Law School, which is holding a five-day “Summer Youth Institute” aimed at impressionable high-school and middle-school students.
Sounds like the worst thing ever, right? Actually, no. It’s really not that bad. For starters, it’s free….
The Marquette program is open to 8th, 9th, and 10th graders who live in the City of Milwaukee. Here’s how the school is describing it:
Students attending the Summer Youth Institute are spending a dynamic week learning about the law, practicing skills, and meeting with attorneys, judges, and law students. They are learning about the American legal system, notable figures in legal history, and the United States Constitution. They are reading United States Supreme Court cases and learning how  case analysis and note taking.
A tipster raises some reasonable concerns about this program:
I don’t know, something about trying to plant the law school seed into 8th graders’ minds before they’ve developed their own ideas about life just seems a little insidious. I mean, a sophomore in college, albeit naive, usually has at least been exposed to an environment that encourages SOME KIND OF critical thinking (maybe that’s presumptuous, but I think so). Middle and high schoolers are just too damn impressionable.
Given the way that law schools have reacted to their own declining value, I think it’s right to be suspicious of anything they do. But here, I think the Marquette initiative overcomes that suspicion and is a pretty good thing.
First of all: it’s free. When criticizing William and Mary, I wrote that “if [W&M] really cared about making this right, if they really wanted to give mid-career professionals a ‘taste’ of the law school experience, they’d make it FREE. Law schools are so concerned about grabbing some quick cash now that they can’t even see their long-term best interests.”
Marquette is a Jesuit institution, and one thing we Catholics are good at is valuing the long-term upside of “getting them while they’re young.” Even if Marquette does have some kind of nefarious plan, they’re at least doing it in the accepted, time-honored way of carrying out nefarious plans: “Hey little boy, here’s some free candy, we’ll talk about all the toys in my van later.” Honestly, in this market a law school needs to be applauded for anything less than a naked cash grab.
And I’m not so sure that there even is some kind of “nefarious” plan at play here. Children, especially by the time they are in high school, are supposed to learn about the legal system. And most American high schools do a piss-poor job of teaching people about the legal system. High school kids should meet judges and lawyers. They should read the Constitution and Supreme Court cases. They should know what a dissent is. These are central concepts to our public life.
Will some of these kids — these city kids — go to this camp and come back with a fire and passion to become “a lawyer” that never goes out, no matter what you tell them about “rational economic self-interest”? Sure. But better for it to happen while they’re talking to judges at Marquette than while watching an episode of Suits on the couch.
Eighth graders might be impressionable, but they’re also making dreams. I’m not worried about the person who has wanted to go to law school since 8th grade and is willing to put in the time and work and sacrifice it takes to get there. That’s not who law schools are fooling anyway. I’m much more worried about the college kid who can’t think of anything better to do with his life who never wanted to be a lawyer but thinks, “Derp, if I go to law school I’ll make $160,000 a year when I get out.”
And I’ll note that nobody is offering that kid the opportunity to get a free taste of it over the summer.