Law School Deans, Law Schools

Dante’s Graduation

Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He’s currently sharing some of his thoughts about legal education and other topics here on Above the Law.

I feel for our students. I mean that too — nowadays, people are so cynical that any expression of sentiment that isn’t ironic is assumed simply to be false or regarded as condescending.

Law school at its best is difficult. Even when the economy is great and individual career prospects seem assured, legal education has never been easy. Whether it is the skill of “issue spotting,” statutory construction, distinguishing precedent, the challenge of writing for those who will literally judge you, or the anxiety brought on by the Socratic dialogue, which remains the norm for classroom discussion, almost all students at some point suffer anxieties about their decision to enter the legal profession.

We should make it better. We are making it better…

Back in the day, law schools offered hardly any support services. If your professors or your peers caused you stress, you would be given additional grief for saying so and then shown the door if you persisted.

Today, counselors, including health care service providers, are ready to assist anyone feeling the stresses of law school or life. We have amenities that would never have been dreamt of, ranging from student groups that are funded for speakers, career advisors who themselves have experience in actual practice, or journals and competitions, cafes and lounges, even dog therapy during exam period.

Yet law school now is even harder than it once was. The reason I empathize with our students is that all around them are critics of legal education who will not hesitate to advise them that they are wasting their lives in a foolish endeavor. They are encouraged, as they prepare for a service profession, to be antagonistic toward their teachers.

What is inherently demanding has been made unnecessarily arduous. I would like not only our students but all students to know that those of us entrusted with leading institutions of higher education are changing what we can to make schools better. A single law school dean, or even the totality of us, cannot change the economy or the legal marketplace. Each of us, however, can adapt our curriculum; together, we may be able to bring about reforms to the overall structure for professional training.

It seems that more than a few observers would like law school deans to announce “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate,” or, as customarily translated from Dante’s celebrated verse, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Anything less ominous is said to be disingenuous.

It turns out that in times past, the senior members of the bench and the bar were as depressing as the author of The Inferno, if less epigrammatic. They offered opinions that, in our era, would provoke student rebellion. I am indebted to one of our most popular professors, Reuel Schiller, a legal historian, for regaling us at Commencement with a sense of the wonderful expressions of pessimism that once were the norm. The foreboding guidance that was dispensed generations ago has its echoes at the moment.

At the first graduation of University of California Hastings College of the Law (which opened its doors in 1878), the official speaker, one Judge Samuel Wilson told the assembled fourty-two members of the class, “Your mistakes during your pupilage have been corrected by renewed study. But your mistakes hereafter may lead you to humiliation and your clients to loss. You have been surrounded in your studies by sympathizing fellow students, tender to your faults and charitable to your errors; you must now meet opposing counsel at the bar who will quickly detect your failings and promptly expose them.”

A few years later, the very founder of the school that bore his name, the first Chief Justice of California, Serranus Clinton Hastings, predicted, “Many of us must totter down the decreasing steps in life, and sadly feel that our professional careers have been analogous only to the childish and futile amusement of carrying pails of sand from one end of the garden to the other and then bringing them back.”

As Professor Schiller, a convivial fellow if ever there were one, remarked, “These two speeches hardly seemed worth emulating. Indeed, they seemed designed to discourage graduates from practicing law at all.”

Thus, perhaps it should be counted as progress that along the way, my predecessors merely warned at the beginning of the year: “Look to your left, look to your right, next year one of you won’t be here.”

I begin orientation altogether differently. I assure our new charges, “Look to your left, look to your right: These are your future law partners and clients, the judges before whom you will appear, and perhaps for some of you, a partner or spouse.”

Frank H. Wu is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. He also is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (affiliate link).

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