“The first thing I lost in law school was the reason I came.” This famous line from Bill Quigley’s Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice represents the disheartening reality for countless law students. Many scholars have documented and studied how ingrained and widespread this disenchantment and disengagement with public interest law has been in legal education. Because of this, some progress has been made in law schools; schools are diversifying offerings, expanding experiential opportunities that are based in communities, and more. Despite these efforts, the struggle to maintain one’s vision and identity remains challenging.
Faced with this reality, a student group at Denver Law – the Chancellor’s Scholars – successfully created and launched the Pledge for the Public Good, an effort that aims to elevate and embed the idea of serving the public good within all classes. With over 20 student organizations in support, more than 60 full-time professors voluntarily signed the Pledge. The Pledge has been a remarkable example of faculty responding to student calls for action, and of student and faculty collaboration more broadly. We wrote about this effort in a law review article published this past spring. (Alexi Freeman & Katherine Steefel, The Pledge for the Public Good: A Student-Led Initiative to Incorporate Morality & Justice in Every Classroom, 22 Wash. & Lee J. Civil Rts. & Soc. Just. 49 (2016)).
Textually, the Pledge is quite simple. It asks professors to pledge that they are dedicated to fostering consciousness of the public good in students and to helping students develop their professional identities from day one in law school. To fulfill this dedication, the professor commits to helping students understand the moral dimensions and social context of the law. The Pledge then lays out examples of ways this can be done, such as incorporating a discussion concerning the social context of cases, explaining how a particular topic in the course relates to the greater public good, or bringing in a practitioner to share a perspective.
Many professors already engage in one or more of these suggested methods. The Pledge validates the efforts of those professors and encourages them to continue to embrace such techniques. For those who may not already intentionally seek out ways to integrate a public good component in their classrooms, the suggestions are not hugely burdensome, but can make a real difference in the student experience. In fact, a survey of students after the first semester of implementation indicated that 72% of them identified professors making connections to the public good.
When the students initially proposed the Pledge, some questions arose. Is this a loyalty oath? What about academic freedom? How about elevating other important skills and values? Are we still preserving the 1L classroom? How can professors find the time? As discussed in the article, our students developed an intentional organizing strategy that ultimately addressed these questions and allowed the initiative to achieve success.
There are many different ways to fully immerse public good values and ideals into legal education and ultimately, we need initiatives like the Pledge and countless others to pop up at every law school across the country to truly make an impact. Our article provides a mini template to help others develop something similar that aligns with their school’s vision, culture, and history. Share this with your students, and more importantly, we encourage you to ask them whether there’s something they can do to impact their law school experience, promote the public good, and help others never forget the reason why they came to law school, AND how you can help them achieve their goals. The Pledge was Denver Law’s students’ vision. What’s yours?
-This was written by 3L Denver Law student Katie Steefel and Alexi Freeman, Denver Law faculty and advisor to the Chancellor’s Scholars