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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Antioch School of Law

There are over 100,000 law students currently in the nation’s law schools but few can experience what less than 400 law students go through at the Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C.

The first two weeks of law school are spent living with families in Washington’s slums to get a feel for the poor people whom the students will soon be representing. Antioch is not just a law school; it is also a public interest law firm with teacher-lawyers and students providing free legal services to the poor and others who are unable to obtain representation for their rights.

Before half of the first year is completed, students are into the clinical phase of their education. Antioch is trying to combine intensively both book learning and practice. Tensions result. Students grumble and sometimes rage against the discipline and the pressure. But they absorb more practical experience than the vast majority of other law students at other law schools. The students are also more diverse than most law schools. About 30% are minority students and almost 40% are women.

Admission to Antioch is far less test-score oriented than conventional admission practice. Founding Deans Edgar and Jean Cahn want “good” as well as “bright” law students. They recognize that people who do not have the cultural background or test-taking facilities that cater to traditional admission criteria can still be humane and able lawyers.

The Antioch experience raises the broader question of what these huge numbers of law students around the country are being trained for. The answer: clients with ready retainers. The puzzle: can we have a democratic legal system with 80% of the lawyers representing 20% of the people?

Too many lawyers gravitate to clients who have power and ignore potential clients who have justice. In an organizational society, this bias builds injustice deep into the political and economic system. Conflicts between governments and citizens, between corporations and consumers and shareholders, between unions and dissenting rank and file are resolved by power rather than by justice when lawyers are on the side of organizations against individuals.

Law schools are very frequently mirror images of this poor development of lawyers in our society. From their courses to their tunnel visions, these law schools prepare their students for career roles shaped by the business world. Career roles for the great legal challenges of the day — such as pollution, consumer fraud, bureaucratic irresponsibility, health care, tax reform, citizen access to dominating organizations — are rarely given articulation and support.

After a few years of ferment and innovation in the late Sixties, law schools recovered their usual conformity and infected most law students with the stagnancy of the Fifties when imagination was considered insolence.

The basic assumptions of legal education need thorough re-examination. Lawyers are given too important a function in our society to forego scrutiny of their nesting grounds.

The chief shaper of legal education and the one most followed by its peers is Harvard Law School. Its genius over the decades has been to take some of the brightest of our youth and make them sharp by rendering them narrow. When you are expected to loyally service the nation’s largest corporations, being narrow is a kind of novacaine against any possible self-discovery of what is being done to the people in the name of the power law.

My associate, Mark Green, pointed out some of these consequences of corporate law practice in his recent book, The Other Government. Another associate, Joel Seligman, is heading a project that is studying the Harvard Law School. Around the nation, there is some progress in developing group legal services for workers and consumers. Some young lawyers are opening up storefront law clinics to make low cost lawyering available for city folk that ordinarily would not think of going to lawyers for help.

But the growing awareness of the many deprivations and injustices which the legal profession has inflicted on the public needs to include law schools in the range of public concern.

Who goes to law school and how they are trained there will significantly determine the quality of the next generation of lawyers. That’s an impact that is too important to be left “to the experts.”

Citizens interested in the philosophy of legal education at Antioch should send a self-addressed envelope to Antioch School of Law, 1624 Crescent Place, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20009.