Students at some elite law schools are demanding action: They want their final exams postponed because of the grand jury decisions related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
If your reaction was “huh?” welcome to the club: Some critics think the demands seem a little too convenient, especially coming from people who should be clamoring to take their place in the legal system, if only to help fix whatever problems they perceive.
“We have been traumatized over and again by the devaluation of Black and Brown lives,” wrote members of the Columbia Law School Coalition of Concerned Students of Color in a Dec. 6 letter to the school administration. “We are falling apart.”
The students asked that the university “recognize” their trauma as legitimate and schedule an “emergency event” to address the two cases.
The requests might have gone largely unnoticed had the Columbia coalition not received this response from the university administration Saturday:
The grand juries’ determinations to return non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shaken the faith of some in the integrity of the grand jury system and in the law more generally. For some law students, particularly, though not only, students of color, this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality.
Robert Scott, the law school’s interim dean, also noted that students who feel they have experienced “trauma” as a result of the events could petition, through a pre-existing policy, to postpone their exams.
That letter, which was first posted online by the Powerline blog, was met with scorn by conservatives — and what can only be interpreted as a deep, heaving sigh of resignation from legal experts.
“Despite the genuine trauma that law students may honestly feel about the Ferguson and Garner decisions, as lawyers, they are going to be dealing with tragedies many times worse,” defense lawyer Benjamin Brafman told the New York Times. “If law students cannot function with difficult issues like these, maybe they should not try and become lawyers.”
Brafman called the students’ demand “absurd.”
So far, the Times reported, several students have postponed their exams.
Harvard, Yale and Georgetown have reiterated pre-existing policies that allow students to postpone exams due to traumatic events.
Responding to the furor bubbling up in their student bodies and overflowing across the country, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow and Yale Law School Dean Robert Post acknowledged in a joint Boston Globe editorial that trust in the American legal system needs to be restored.
“As deans of law schools devoted to the rule of law, we work continuously to instill a commitment to the legal system,” they wrote. “We regard the rule of law as a precious and fragile resource. But the rule of law requires the legal system to respect procedures necessary to expose and correct its own mistakes.
“A failing legal system puts us all in a chokehold.”
What both deans failed to address is the role that their graduates — who are presumptively some of the best, brightest and most well positioned young legal minds in the country — play in affecting how that legal system operates.
It is no secret that graduates of elite law schools, including Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Georgetown, often end up at large corporate law firms rather than working as prosecutors or public defenders.
A quick look at the employment statistics for 2013 Harvard, Yale and Columbia make this discrepancy pretty clear:
You can find full employment statistics for each of the schools here, here, here and here. (Not included in this chart are the students who graduate and then clerk for judges, which many would justifiably consider public service as well.)
The trend is apparent, though to a lesser degree, at Georgetown.
But despite the national conversation about justice, there has been virtually no mention in the student letters to law school administrators of the need to increase the number of elite graduates working both as prosecutors and as legal-aid providers for people who in their interactions with law enforcement might be victims of excessive force.
The students have noted that they have protested in the streets, written op-eds, and stood in solidarity with others demonstrating the deaths of Garner and Brown and the subsequent grand jury decisions. But they haven’t addressed what they will do about the problem when — and perhaps, if — they graduate and enter the very legal system they are now critiquing.
On Wednesday, the Harvard Law students acknowledged the criticism of their demands and thanked the university for responding. And perhaps recognizing that the focus on postponing exams has detracted from other legitimate concerns, they acknowledged “missteps.”
“We did not get everything we asked for,” they wrote. “We may have made some missteps along the way.”