DC in OC: UCI Law – Traditional and Innovative?

by ursavoice

Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

The conclusion of the first three years of UCI Law presents a timely moment to pause and consider the institution we have built. For my final Voice article as a UCI Law student, I want to reflect on the very first three years of institution building at the law school. I strongly believe that as a new school, we should be deliberately coupling construction with evaluation and asking ourselves how successful we have been as a community in creating the ideal law school of the 21st century, what roadblocks are in our way, and how we can better accomplish our mission.
    Whether you characterize it as “Playing the Game, While Changing the Game” or “the Irvine Conversation,” the key inquiry is how much we are just like every other traditional, elite law school and how much we are a groundbreaking new institution committed to reforming legal education and fostering a culture of public service. This question might involve comparing the UCI experience to other law schools, of which I have little firsthand knowledge. Regardless, I do think it is possible to at least begin examining our community’s success on reforming legal education and emphasizing public service.
    Our advertisement materials state that UCI Law is trying to innovate legal education by emphasizing practical and experiential learning. Our 3L clinic requirement definitely supports this position, as does a hands-on Lawyering Skills program where 1Ls conduct legal intakes with legal services organizations. In between these opportunities, however, I am not convinced we are exceptionally experiential. Students can take non-3L clinics, arrange for externships, and immerse themselves in pro-bono opportunities, all of which amount to a significant amount of experiential learning. However, are these opportunities all that different or more progressive than what other law schools offer? My friends at other schools tell me about their clinics, cite to their externships, and might even take on a pro-bono project, so it seems unclear to me that our experience, outside of 3L clinic and lawyering skills, is that much more experiential than other well-run law schools’.
    Reforming legal education might also involve larger questions about the ways in which our professors teach. I am certain that our faculty is deliberate about their teaching and how they arrange their classes, but the extent to which that is true is difficult to appreciate from the student’s desk. Our effort to rename 1L class names (Procedural Analysis and Common Law Analysis: Public Ordering) has largely failed, as students and professors alike continue to refer to the subjects by their traditional names. Perhaps our Legal Profession class and its survey of practice types sets us apart from other law schools, and as it was one of my favorite 1L classes, I hope this is so. I would also hope students took the class more seriously.
    UCI Law also set out to be a premier public service school. We have made several important steps toward this goal, like a laudable pro-bono program, a robust Saturday Academy of Law program, summer funding for 1Ls and 2Ls doing public interest work, the UCDC program, and strong relationships with public interest organizations in Southern California. But more work remains for us before we can legitimately claim this title. The 3L class’s fellowship record – compared to our clerkship numbers – is indicative of the fewer fellowship opportunities in the job market generally, but it also may speak to the administration’s deliberate preferencing of judicial clerkships (through both a formal clerkship committee as well as what appears to be an odd and non-transparent tapping and funneling of certain students to off-plan judges) and a lack of institutional support for students who want to pursue fellowships. As I wrote about last year, the departure of key women of color faculty and staff continue to raise questions about the recruitment and retention of women of color at UCI Law – particularly those who study and support social justice and critical identity theory. Although I recognize there are greater pipeline-related dynamics at work, we cannot claim to be a public service school when our faculty and students do not come close to reflecting the public’s demographics.
    The faculty recruitment and retention point directly impacts UCI’s curriculum as well. I have heard that some 2Ls are disappointed with the number of public service/public interest classes offered next semester, which might be informed by key faculty of color being whisked away to teach doctrinal classes. The existence of Social Justice Thursdays, an initiative I profoundly admire and respect, demonstrates that meaningful conversations about social justice and community lawyering/public service are not happening systematically in the classroom and that SJT was created to fill this void. A public service school needs to infuse this mission throughout the classroom.
    Words cannot express how grateful I am to be one of UCI Law’s inaugural students. In many ways, my classmates and I have been spoiled, pampered, and hand-held for the past three years. At the same time, my legal education has been empowering, humbling, and certainly eye-opening. Yet, some of my classmates have worried about coming off as ungrateful when critiquing the school. I offer my thoughts because I hope to generate/continue a conversation about the institution we are creating and the responsibility we owe to our community and to each other. UCI Law still has a lot of growing up to do, and I am curiously excited about our community’s future.*

* I want to thank the people behind Voice (Diana, Zeenat, Jigar) who have made my voice a reality. I am deeply appreciative for all they have done and all they will continue to do to promote discourse in our community.