Around a quarter-century ago I was slouching through Evidence class when the professor called on me and posed a question about the admissibility of some witness statement. I gave a rule-bound answer: the admissibility was governed by a particular rule and would turn on specific factors and in my view weighed in favor of excluding the statement. The professor made a face and said "that wasn't a particularly profound answer." "It wasn't a particularly profound question," I replied, and the class laughed and the professor threw a piece of chalk at me. That semester I got a B- in Evidence (which at that institution was the equivalent of hauling you behind the barracks and shooting you) and an A+ in Tax. Requiescat in pace, my ability to take grades seriously.
The professor was unhappy because he was looking for an answer that interrogated the arbitrary dichotomies between admissible and not-admissible and illuminated the ways that purportedly neutral rules are socially constructed in the context of various social hegemonies and so on and and so forth. I thought all of that was swell but mostly wanted to learn how to try cases. I went on to learn actual evidence elsewhere; the professor went on to have unfortunate experiences trying to apply the rules-don't-matter attitude to actual litigation.
I repeat this story because last week Scott Greenfield and Jordan Rushie curmudgeoned it up about law schools focusing on "social justice" as a subject of instruction. That ideological bent is far more common in modern law schools, but Scott and Jordan could also have talked about schools that seek to impart a Christian view of law or a law-and-economics perspective.
Consider this exhortation by UW students Jordan quotes:
We demand a curriculum more clearly focused on the mission of creating leaders for the global common good. Such courses will provide a foundation of social justice for graduates in careers of all types, and will work synergistically with the demands above.
. . . .
Create and incorporate a new “capstone” course into the 1L curriculum with more big-picture elements of history, philosophy, critical legal studies, implicit bias, and critical race/feminist theory. The traditional 1L curriculum focuses so intensely on the minutiae of case law that it is easy to lose sight of why many of us came to law school in the first place. This course would serve to break the cycle of indoctrination and redirect student focus to the global common good.
This was, more or less, the attitude of Professor Chuck-Chalk: rules and caselaw are mundane, a distraction from Big Ideas about the common good.
Now, I have no objection to students spending three years and $150,000 learning about Big Ideas. How else are we going to manufacture the next set of people to teach about Big Ideas?
But I do have a strong objection to law schools tolerating — let alone cultivating — a disdain of the nuts and bolts of competent law practice. I especially have an objection to that disdain being cultivated in the name of "social justice." People traditionally recognized as being in need of social justice are also the people in most dire need of competent legal representation. When they have a few days to contest an eviction or they've been arrested and may lose their job, they don't need someone who is exquisitely prepared to explain and denounce the racist and oppressive structures that led to their unfortunate predicament. They need someone who knows what he or she is doing. They need someone who knows all of the petty substantive and procedural rules of landlord-tenant law and how the local court actually operates. They need someone who can swiftly assess whether an arrest or interrogation was unlawful and formulate a plausible and effective plan for dealing with it. They need someone who knows how to get things into evidence in court even under pressure on their feet when the judge is being difficult and the opposing counsel is making nonsensical objections. They need a grubby little practitioner.
People are quicker to understand this in other contexts. If a hairdresser could argue movingly that gendered hairstyles are based on antiquated stereotypes, but had no idea how to cut hair, people would generally accept that he was a poor hairdresser. If you encountered a woman in labor experiencing dangerous complications who had been too poor to get prenatal care, you'd seek a skilled high-risk pregnancy physician, not someone who had focused on learning what socioeconomic forces deprive poor women of adequate care. But for some reason — perhaps because so many dramatic social changes have come through the legal system — people don't seem to understand that lawyering requires actual tradesman skills too. Thurgood Marshall appealed to social justice when he successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, but he didn't get there by Big Ideas alone; he got there by developing the sort of meticulous legal skills that led to an almost unprecedented win record before the court. He worked, and he didn't think he was too good to grub around with rules and precedents.
Our system is mediocre at best at delivering justice to society's least powerful. Do you want to be able to explain why? That's fine, go do that. But if you plan to address social injustice as a lawyer by actually representing its victims, it is absolutely perverse and self-indulgent to focus on theory rather than skills and rules.