The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most popular course ever at Georgetown Law? How to fight for justice.

More than 300 students signed up for ‘Lawyers as Leaders,’ the largest enrollment for a course in the history of Georgetown University Law Center

Third-year Georgetown Law student Max Lesser, photographed in Miami in late October, is taking a new class called “Lawyers as Leaders” that has prominent faculty members talking about how they made an impact. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)
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In her third year of law school, Maxine Walters expected to have everything in place: Her job locked in, her career path mapped out.

Then the pandemic hit, and economic uncertainty, and protests erupted over racial justice and tensions flared over the presidential election and transition. Her summer job with a firm evaporated, and with it the hoped-for offer of a permanent position by the time classes resumed for the fall.

But her school year began with an unusual class — one created to mark Georgetown University Law Center’s 150th anniversary and shaped by the realities of 2020 — that has, for many students, upended their ideas about rigid timelines for success, their expectations and even their aspirations.

Instead of a traditional course focused on an area of law such as contracts or torts, the school’s leaders crafted a more personal, broad-ranging look at leadership. It was a recognition that the tumultuous times are forcing a reckoning, and leaving many students yearning to have an impact.

Clearly, they touched a nerve: More than 300 upper-level students signed up for “Lawyers as Leaders,” the largest enrollment for a course in the history of Georgetown Law.

“This is definitely a time where the ground is moving,” said Max Lesser, a 28-year-old student from New Jersey. “Everyone realizes that the old paradigms of politics and justice are kind of breaking. … Lawyers have a real role to play in what path we take.”

For the online course, students submit questions about assigned readings and then listen to a conversation between Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor and a faculty member. He asks them to talk about how to move forward to confront “the great issues of this terrible time.”

“This is a time when we’re all grappling with so many crises” and profound challenges and losses, he said.

The conversations held each Sunday — now available to all on the school’s anniversary website — have been topical, even urgent. Students have heard from Lawrence Gostin about health-care policy during the pandemic, such as vaccine distribution and whether the government should mandate mask-wearing and social distancing.

Neal Katyal, who has argued more than 40 cases before the Supreme Court, spoke about the contested 2000 election, in which he was co-counsel to Democratic candidate Al Gore, and about electoral integrity this year. Randy Barnett, a libertarian and self-described contrarian, talked about the constitutionality of health policy, recent Supreme Court nominees and the importance of seeking out opposing viewpoints. And Rosa Brooks talked about her work examining whether norms will hold fast in the aftermath of this contentious election, or whether the country could face a constitutional crisis.

The conversations have been challenging, insightful, sometimes funny and surprisingly vulnerable. Gostin spoke of his difficult childhood, and how that had helped shape the optimistic outlook he’s known for. He shared his tips for the best way to make popcorn.

Katyal told students to do something that was uncomfortable for them, especially early in their careers. He said he had recently taken rap improv classes to improve his ability to think on his feet, and found it terrifying.

Katyal also shared how his father faced discrimination and was unfairly fired, but had his dignity restored by a civil case, inspiring Katyal to go to law school. He told how he always asked his children’s advice the night before a Supreme Court case, and shared some of their tips on how to stay calm when facing the justices. (Once: “Think of a cute pig.”)

This is a time when shared challenges make people more comfortable talking about vulnerabilities, Treanor said. “I don’t think we would have these same conversations if we had this class two years ago.”

Hillary Sale, an associate dean and professor who helped design the class, agreed. The stress of the times is making people introspective and reflective, she said, “in ways that are probably really good, and probably wouldn’t happen without that outside pressure.”

Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, challenged students to rethink the justice system, which he argues is not weakened by a few racist bad-apple police officers, but is “broke on purpose” and working the way it was designed to work.

Butler told of his searing experience decades ago when he was arrested while he was a prosecutor on a case accusing a U.S. senator of corruption. As he wrote in his book “Let’s Get Free,” Butler was charged with simple assault after a neighbor falsely accused him of pushing her after a dispute over a parking space. Police officers cursed at him. At the courthouse, he was led, handcuffed, through the inmates’ entrance — when, as a prosecutor, he normally could breeze through the main entrance without needing to go through a metal detector.

At his trial, he said, he listened to a police officer lie on the stand. After he was acquitted, he felt the weight of how easily the false accusation could have destroyed him, if not for the skill of his attorney.

A Yale- and Harvard-educated prosecutor, Butler had once felt different from the Black men he prosecuted, he told The Washington Post. But, he said, “I certainly wasn’t different in the way police responded to me.”

He wanted students to think about the inevitable setbacks and traumatic experiences they would face, and how they would confront those with integrity. “The main thing I wanted students to think about,” Butler said, “is justice.”

For Walters, a 23-year-old Black student from Mobile, Ala., the leadership class initially sounded like a welcome break from typical law classes — in which professors grill students with tough questions — during a busy fall when she is also applying for jobs. But Walters, who is president of the Georgetown Law Black Law Students Association, has been struck by a number of the conversations, including Butler’s.

“It has been inspiring to have this class,” Walters said.

As faculty reflect in the class on their own life choices, the odd zigs and zags of their careers, the abject failures that turned out to be gifts and the pinnacles that unexpectedly fell flat, the stories resonated with other students confronting their own imminent decisions.

People are definitely more stressed about careers this fall, said Luke Bunting, a student from Indiana who has worked for Republican members of Congress and is now in his second year at Georgetown Law. He hopes to work for a firm and make an impact, and hearing from people with such different backgrounds and approaches made him more confident that was possible, he said.

Kristin Ewing, a student from Nebraska by way of a musical-theater career in New York, gained an interest in health-care policy when she saw how performers were affected by their lack of insurance. She said it was reassuring to hear professors talk about career pivots.

Rujuta Nandgaonkar, also interested in health policy — an inclination cemented by the pandemic, she said — was struck by Barnett’s advice to surround yourself with people who disagree with you, and an idea several people shared about getting past the inevitable bumps in the road. “Those are important lessons for these times,” she said.

“This is not the greatest time — but there is hope,” Nandgaonkar said. “That’s the string that runs through it.”

Lesser, a high school teacher for four years before law school, isn’t sure what he wants to do after he graduates. But he is considering options that tie into his interests in democracy and criminal justice reform, such as working in a prosecutor’s office, judiciary committees in Congress or for the military.

After hearing Brooks talk, Lesser said, “her lecture reinforced that having a functional modern democracy is a precious thing, and it can get lost easily if people aren’t willing to perfect it.”

The class has been grounding, Lesser said.

“It reminds you of why you’re doing this. That’s important, especially when our country is being tested, our field is being tested. You have to reconnect to the values” that brought people to study the law, he said.

Walters had gravitated during law school to apply to firms because she was worried about paying off student loans. But after a summer of protests following George Floyd’s killing in police custody, she witnessed people paint messages about defunding the police near the White House, and was struck by the role public defenders were playing in the community.

The new economic uncertainty and the idealism reinforced by the class reaffirmed her original commitment to go back to the South — where she grew up not seeing Black lawyers, she said — and work as a public defender.

“I’m kind of grateful to be able to do what I’m passionate about,” Walters said. “I think it would be great to go back there and try to make it the best place it could be.”