Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Over the past several months, a good deal of public discussion has appeared in various media sources, including web logs, about the perceived surplus of lawyers, the present cost of legal education, and the declining applicant pools of would-be law students who are reassessing the economics of investing large sums of money on legal education. I would think that most of the contributors to the Mirror of Justice have heard and participated in discussions about these topics formally and informally at our respective institutions.
I, for one, do not view any form of higher education as a market-driven economy. I often respond negatively when education is passed off as the equivalent of some product or merchandise in which the purveyor, i.e., the educational institution, needs to find its “market” in order to be successful. I realize that there are important economic elements of education in general and of higher education, including legal education, in particular. But I think it unwise to make important decisions about education as if it were a market only seeking to survive, especially in difficult economic times.
I also realize that many educational institutions, including law schools, like to portray themselves a filling some kind of niche in the world of higher education. As a member of a religious order that founded over several dozen institutions of higher learning in the United States, over half of them with law schools, I often hear my confreres in the order and my lay colleagues assert that “our” schools have the niche of meeting the needs of “social justice,” and it is “social justice” that is the raison d’être of and for these law schools. If this line of reasoning and justification is to be followed, then it is “social justice” which enables these institutions to attract students and faculty to join their ranks. I find a similar justification offered by other institutions that were founded by other religious orders or dioceses and choose to use the moniker “Catholic”.
But is “social justice” really the element that makes Catholic legal education distinctive and attractive to future students and faculty? What is “social justice”—what constitutes it? While I am at it, are there law schools which are for “social injustice”? Frankly, I find the term “social justice” being susceptible to many different, often conflicting definitions and thus realize it difficult to justify the distinctiveness of a law school that identifies itself as Catholic by relying on this nebulous term. Moreover, I have seen definitions of “social justice” that would include practices or beliefs which are antithetical to the Church’s teachings, e.g., abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, some kinds of bio-medical experimentation. No, I don’t think “social justice” is the real element that makes a law school one that can call itself distinctively Catholic.
If there is, in fact, a declining interest in attending law school these days, is there something that can make a law school Catholic in fact knowing that it must also prepare students to become good practitioners of what is supposed to be a noble profession?
Indeed there is. Of course it would be found in an institution that is not ashamed of Catholic teachings, many of which have a direct or indirect bearing on the law. As laws and legal education deal with many of the same issues—e.g., labor-management issues, regulation of economic markets, the use of force, the role of sovereignty in the international order, just compensation in wages and in reparations (damages), criminal matters, health care regulation, etc.—why should a law school that relies on the modifier “Catholic” not be motivated to allow these great teachings to inspire the direction in which its curriculum is formed and taught?
Or is the temptation really to be just like everyone else? If this is the case, then there really is nothing that makes a Catholic law school really distinctive. And if there is nothing distinctive about it in regards to the substantive content of its curriculum and its outlook, then is there any reason to think it will fare better than other law schools given the current climate of the decreasing interest in obtaining a legal education?