Where the Law(yer) is Made: Campus Activism and Civil Rights Work

Chris Wilds

During a panel for high school students interested in law, one student asked, “How can we be sure that a law school will provide us with the skills that we need to do the things that we’d like to do?” My response was that although faculty and administrators may help students attain the skills they need, students themselves can, and should, play an active role in their own education. Had I been asked that question one year earlier I may have had a different response. My perspective on the student’s role in law school and higher education generally has been influenced by my involvement in the seminar 64@50: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

During the Fall semester of 2014, Columbia Law students organized and led a seminar focused on the landmark civil rights legislation enacted a half-century ago. One constant throughout the sessions was the level of student involvement in shaping and leading the discussions. By taking on an increased role in fashioning their own legal education, Columbia Law students were not only studying an important event in the civil rights movement, they were also exhibiting the character that moved young people to challenge the status quo, and impact the institutions of their day, over fifty years ago.

Creating and leading a reading group may not seem like a revolutionary act, but when understood within the context of events that occurred during the Fall semester of 2014, not only at Columbia Law School but around the nation, the potential impact of the seminar is more evident. Following the non-indictments of the officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a feeling of helplessness had overcome many of the students of color at Columbia Law School. Students formed a coalition in response to the non-indictments and the school’s initial lack of responsiveness, ultimately demanding several responses from the school administration.[1]

Unsurprisingly, the coalition’s actions were met with contempt from many of those who fail to see law schools and the legal system as institutions which must be critically examined in order to ensure that they are not perpetuating injustices that harm people of color. Esteemed defense attorney Benjamin Brafman even went so far as to suggest that maybe the students should rethink becoming lawyers if they could not “function” with such difficult issues.

Brafman and many others who criticize such student action fail to perceive the possibility that these actions are the beginning of a change in the way law schools and the legal system operate. Although the current legal landscape may have little room for discussions of justice or compassion, law students are not only in school to learn the law so that they can follow it—they are also there to learn how to change it. If law schools as they are have no room for recognition of the trauma faced by some of their students, then it is not up to students to “suck it up and take it,” but to advocate to change law schools into institutions that better serve their needs.

While the seminar did not face such controversy and contempt, it too represents a shift in the experience of law students. Like consumers of many modern services, law students are becoming accustomed to a personalized, individualized experience; the “one size fits all” path of attending a prestigious law school, taking black letter law classes, and going to a large law firm will not satisfy the desires of the student of tomorrow. As students in this generation think critically about the institutions that play an important role in shaping society, law schools must adapt and become more attentive to the individual needs of students. One possibility is that schools can make student-led seminars a requirement for graduating, or at the very least do more to make students aware that they have the ability to develop their own courses focused on their unique interests. The result may be that students experience a greater feeling of control over their education. This may also facilitate a more interactive learning environment where students focus their energies on the quality of the learning experience rather than preparation for a three-hour final exam.

In a small way, students involved in the seminar were embodying the spirit of the Act, a legislative scheme that came about in large part because of the actions of students who were unwilling to accept the world as it was. Many of those students were undoubtedly viewed as idealistic and naïve 60 years ago, but today we call them heroes. Hopefully, the seminar represents the beginning of a shift towards students challenging the status quo and following in the footsteps of heroes of past generations.

[1] See Tamerra Griffin, Columbia Law Students Can Postpone Exams If They’re “Sufficiently Impaired” By Eric Garner Grand Jury Decision, Buzzfeed (Dec. 9, 2014), http://www.buzzfeed.com/tamerragriffin/columbia-law-school-students-seek-relief-over-trauma-of-gran#.rjb7qXxJK. Students at Harvard and Georgetown’s law schools also formed coalitions in response to the non-indictments. See Courtney Connley, Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown Law Students Request Exam Delays After Garner and Brown Decisions, Black Enterprise (Dec. 15, 2014), http://www.blackenterprise.com/education/columbia-harvard-georgetown-law-students-exam-delays/.