The Irvine Conversation: Ensuring a Sustainable and Successful UCI Law Model

by ursavoice

By Sam Lam

J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law


    I have had a particular conversation with my colleagues at UCI Law since August of 2009, when I began my first year. The conversation shows up in different ways at different times, but at heart it is the same conversation. I call it the Irvine Conversation. It goes something like this:

    Let’s say I have some idea about how to innovate, whether it be about the curriculum, administration, student life, faculty hiring, whatever. I want to see that idea come to fruition because I really believe the law school will be better for it. I’ll call this the innovation force.

    But I also want this to be a top-tier law school. More than that, I want the law school to be perceived by the legal profession and legal academic community as a top-tier law school in order to provide the best opportunities for myself and everyone else at UCI Law. Therefore, I contradictorily also want UCI Law to succeed by the traditional benchmarks of law school success. I’ll call this the tradition force.

    The Irvine Conversation is the dialectical conversation we conduct when we wonder what in the world we do about these two inherently conflicting forces. To put it in Dean Chemerinky’s words, “Our central challenge [is] to be sufficiently traditional to be credible, but sufficiently innovative to justify why we exist.”

    Voice has touched upon the Irvine Conversation a number of times, so I only want to provide a different angle to it. In particular, I want to proffer what I believe are the two paramount challenges to UCI Law—and by implication the legal profession—if we are to maintain a sustainable model of becoming the ideal law school of the 21st century.

    The first challenge stems from the fact that the battle between the innovation force and the tradition force is not symmetric. The tradition force is much, much stronger. We fool ourselves if we think that we can become a better law school by flourishes and nods at innovation. Tradition does not relent; by its nature, it cannot. But to refuse to acknowledge that truth is effectively to submit to the force of tradition, whether it be this year, or next year, or five years out.

    I contend that for us to move toward our goal and to ensure that UCI Law retains its ingenuity, collegiality, and even reason for existence, the innovation force must so saturate the culture and work of our law school that it always makes us a little uncomfortable. At the least, it should leave us perpetually unsatisfied.

    The innovation force must direct our decisions about our curriculum, the activities we support and fund, the presenters we bring in, and the faculty members we hire. Above all, the innovation force must characterize our interactions with our colleagues, meaning our interactions must be characterized by open-mindedness, lightheartedness, malleability, and good-naturedness. It will not do to nudge our way toward the ideal law school of the 21st century. The attack must be wholesale.

    If the first challenge for UCI Law has to do with a description of the conflict, the second challenge has to do with how we operationalize our response. Here, we have a problem of addition.

    It seems to me that we have defaulted to a model of law school success in which we expect our students to be just as good at the traditional benchmarks of law school success—grades, law review, moot court, mock trial, etc.—and then in addition to those, they must magically find the time and resources to be good at newer benchmarks of UCI Law success—pro bono, public interest, social activism, student organizations, programs reaching out to traditionally underrepresented students, etc.

    This additive model is unsustainable. Administrators should not misunderstand students when students complain about workload. The content of the work is not the problem; most of the time, we find the work interesting. It is that we are expected to do all of the work, and then more work, and simultaneously remain sane humans who do not fall asleep in class. UCI Law will not be able to have it both ways, and something from the tradition force will soon have to give.

    To be sure, I believe that the Irvine Conversation was taking place well before I got to UCI Law. I have seen some of the fruits of that Conversation as a student, some of this shifting of priorities between the innovation force and the tradition force.

    A key example is something that Dean Chemerinsky and other faculty members have emphasized many times before, which is that UCI Law has shifted away from merely teaching substantive law to developing legal skills. In my own experience, this shift in focus has been a great boon to the success of the law school and of my classmates’ and my personal success. Supervising attorneys I have spoken with have remarked that they believe UCI Law students are far better prepared for practice than other law students. That is worth celebrating!

    Based on a recent speech, Judge José Cabranes of the Second Circuit would have disagreed with our shift in emphasis, since he believes law schools should return to “terra firma” by refocusing on bread-and-butter law classes. The truth is that Judge Cabranes has a point too. He writes correctly, “Legal scholarship is a conversation among members of the academy with the rest of us reading—maybe.” The Irvine Conversation can never ultimately fall on either the side of the innovation force or of the tradition force, but rather must foster a nuanced, rigorous, and self-aware understanding of what is good about tradition, and what needs to be improved.

    We have wonderful faculty members and administrators, and we hired them because of their background and expertise. That background and expertise, however, come with baggage—the force, the weight, of tradition.

    Whatever the end result of our Irvine Conversations, one thing I hope above all is that the Conversations never end merely by one side saying, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” At a place like UCI Law, there is never “just the way it is.” There is only a way we are becoming. I exhort all members of our community to remain vigilantly self-aware, self-critical, and self-motivated.

    In short, everyone should keep talking. I can’t believe I graduate this May. But when I come back to visit, I fully expect the halls to be loud with discussion.