View from the Classroom: The legal academy and public legal education

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Law schools are designed to educate their students.  This is what they do—through their curriculums, through their extra-curricular offerings and even through faculty scholarship and service.  In one way or another, everything a law school does serves its core mission, to educate its students.  They’re hard-wired to educate.

But law schools don’t exist in a vacuum.  Whether urban or rural, attached to a larger school or independent, large or small, law schools are part of a broader community.  They’re often relatively privileged and influential institutions within their broader community.  They bring financial resources, intellectual heft and talent in an area—the law—that is critical to community cohesion, community development and community justice.

In short, law schools come equipped with experience and expertise in education, but they also play keys roles in their communities.  Taken together, these characteristics mean that law schools are ideal institutions to promote public legal education.

Law schools most obviously have the expertise and resources to host public symposiums, talks, discussions, panels and the like.  These events are easy to put together, they draw directly on readily available law school resources (like faculty experts an area) and they are at least potentially accessible to outsiders.  Many law schools host these kinds of events frequently, and they do it quite well.

But law schools are also uniquely equipped to partner with others — bar organizations, law firms, legal aid and nonlegal institutions like local schools and libraries.  Law schools can partner with these organizations for any variety of programs, from general public legal education programs, to targeted programs for attorneys and pro se litigants, to tailored programs in the public schools or other nonlegal educational institutions.  Law schools have the people power to arrange these partnerships, and they have the expertise to help execute them.

Many law schools already do these things and do them well.  But we could do even more.  There’s a real thirst and need for public legal education.  Lawyers want and need this kind of programming to help meet formal CLE requirements and the more general need to stay on top of developments in their field.  People facing divorce, foreclosure, bankruptcy, interruptions to public benefits and similar legal issues want to need this kind of programming to help them navigate a confusing legal system without an attorney (or even with one).  Public schools want and need this kind of programming to help meet their educational mission and to help prepare their students for milestones like the required constitutional and civics exam.  And the public in general wants and needs this kind of programming— and we should want to provide it — simply to increase their understanding of the law, government, public policy, history, or anything else that we teach every day in law school.

Public legal education serves our core mission in at least two ways.  First, public legal education efforts are obviously open to our own students, prospective students, and graduates.  Public legal education complements our base curriculum and allows our students to interact and network with outsiders, those who are often more directly involved with the law.  Next, students can help initiate, arrange, organize, and create public education programming.  This is one of the best ways for our students to learn and understand the law in a deeper, more meaningful way than they can learn in the classroom alone.

Public legal education is easy for law schools; they’re uniquely equipped to do it.  It allows them to give back to their community, responding to real and increasing needs.  And it directly serves their core mission.  On the whole, we do a pretty good job of it; but we can do better.

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