UCI Law’s Fifth Graduating Class: Looking Forward and Backward

by ursavoice

Ariela Rutkin-Becker
Class of 2016

UCI Law’s Fifth Graduating Class: Looking Forward and Backward

During my first two years of law school, I hardly noticed the enlarged black and white photos on the walls outside MPAA 420 and 430.  A few illustrate large labor strikes in the 1920’s.  And in one, Mildred and Richard Loving hold a press conference after the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws barring interracial marriage — in essence, granting formal legal recognition to their relationship.

If this hallway were a microcosm of our school — even if this was not exactly the “dream building” for the law school’s future home — UCI Law was clearly positioning itself from the beginning to take part in the most pressing issues of the day.  UCI Law clearly believed that the idea of a 21st century law school is to best prepare its students to be thrown into that work.

Eight years after our school’s inception, as a member of the fifth graduating class, I hope you’ll indulge me for a minute as I reflect on how well I think that mission is going and where I want to see us go in the future.

Access for First-Generation College and Law Students

As we expand, it becomes harder and harder to please everybody.  When we — the departing 3Ls — entered, the law school was both unaccredited and unranked.  Entering such a program was considered somewhat of a “risk.”  More and more students become interested in UCI Law because it is a safe bet, not because it necessarily fosters the entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit that it did at the beginning. Faculty recruits will face similar difficulties.  We are building a multi-million dollar building, and its “wow” factor will certainly play a large part in why some people choose our school who otherwise wouldn’t have glanced at it beforehand (more about this below). For the first time in our school’s short history, next year will see a Mod C. Our student body is expanding, and we will soon welcome a whole new class of students to the LLM program.

So what makes our school different? Is it really such a problem to have faculty and students attracted to our school now because of its safeness?  Is it a problem to be growing at an exponentially-fast rate, and creating new programs for even more students? Or is there something potentially lost or eroding that we must hold on to as we grow?

First, I believe that our collegiality toward each other is both stable and forceful. I see each class continuously implementing this culture so that it is an ingrained part of what makes us #soucilaw.  In the past few days of writing this reflection, I went out to dinner with a group of students and a professor with whom we’ve been meeting every semester since the summer before law school started. I only have my own personal knowledge of this law school, but I’d wager a bet that this is pretty rare, if unheard of, in other places.  I also got sick and missed class, and had not one, not two, but three fellow students send me notes.  The spirit doesn’t die down, even in our third year.  I think for the most part this is positive, as it strives to create a nurturing community for students to feel safe seeking help from faculty, friends, and staff. The school believes, and effectively communicates, the notion that one need not be aggressive, egotistical, or manipulative to be a successful lawyer. I am incredibly thankful for that message and recognize that not every institution of legal learning communicates it.

But I also would caution this #soucilaw environment with a caveat.  One, I am a white student who comes from immense socioeconomic and educational privilege.  While I try my best to be on the lookout for this occurring, I would never imagine that, even in our largely-collegial environment, students from less privileged backgrounds, or students with minority perspectives, are not being silenced in classroom and courtyard discussions every day. This is why initiatives such as the Committee on Inclusion and Diversity are so important.  We cannot pretend that our space is safe across the board for everyone, or even that it is a necessarily safe space for some.  We must pay mind to this and work to improve by paying attention to who is speaking and who is not.  We must foster a culture of inclusiveness that pays serious attention to students’ different life experiences and perspectives, one that transcends a readily-digestible, catchy hashtag.

We’re number 28 in the country according to one arbitrary ranking system, 7 according to another; the numbers go on and on.  But where I’d really like for us to be is number 1 in the country of providing access to a top-tier legal education for first-generation college and law students.  Programs like POP, the For People of Color conference, and Saturday Academy of Law are a good start; I’d like to see even more and a major institutional commitment to this effect. Perhaps there is a way to encourage more broad-based mentoring in local schools that could partner with teachers in need, doing small-group reading or math work for middle school students, for example; more general outreach efforts as community stakeholders, not just as lawyers.  If this kind of work did not count for typical ABA pro bono hours, perhaps it could within an internal pro bono hours counter and the “formal” versus “informal” hours could be determined separately (if this were a serious disincentive for student involvement.)

Access to Critical Perspectives and Student Activism in Law School

The role of a law school is not necessarily to provide a reliable, predictable service to its consumers (the students). It is not a simple contract for goods and services that the transactional-focused 3Ls among us might be able to negotiate now. But we, the students, are important stakeholders in this institution.  We are consumers, and as such, our tuition dollars allow us both say, and sway, in institutional decision-making. UCI Law should continue to incorporate student vision and student involvement the way we are taught to centralize our clients’ wishes, direction and goals. Students should continue to play a meaningful, and expanded, role in guiding the university’s vision through more transparent faculty meetings; faculty hiring and internal promotions process; and other areas.  Students should continue to petition for new subject areas to be taught, such as Tribal jurisdiction within Procedural Analysis; Tribal Economic Development; and others; for writing prompts to be re-examined and/or re-designed.  Student activism here at UCI Law should play an even larger role in shaping this living, breathing organism that is our law school.

A quick note devoted to the new building itself: I would really like to see more student involvement in this process in the future. This building is going to shape much of our future; not just in our learning environment, but in our debts and our institutional priorities of how to pay back those debts. Students should have access to up-to-date information about fundraising schemes, budgets, and sustainability efforts. This can be compiled in a “State of the Building” website so everyone has access to the same information. Students should form committees to play a role in, for example, helping to choose the contractor if there is to be a coffee lounge within the building. Campus dining contracts can play a powerful role in the food justice movement: students can voice their vote for fair trade, ethically-sourced produce and coffee. On a similar note, students can voice their vote for fair labor practices in the building’s construction. Clinic students, particularly CED students, can play a role in ensuring that this building fits in to the campus-wide community, as well as being a welcoming space (and not a silo) for members of the outside community that we are intending to serve. Environmental clinic students can push for solar panels or other creative ways of offsetting the building’s carbon footprint. I know much of this is pre-ordained from UC Guidelines. I know much of this is beyond our expertise as young lawyers. I know many of us are busy. But we can play a much more active role going forward in what will be an enormous project.

Part of why I believe so firmly in an expanded role for students in these realms is because I believe that the role of a law school is to prepare its students to “practice” in the real world, and to give us real-world opportunities to gain marketable skills.  I think our law school does this well already through our exposure to clinics and pro bono work, and will continue to be what sets us apart.

But if this were all that school was, we could simply apprentice with lawyers and still take the Bar (in California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington). Law schools are uniquely situated to reify positions of power.  They also, then, are uniquely situated to question them. Law school is uniquely situated to have an impact on not just what we learn, but how we learn. Law school has the ability to prod our assumptions and implicit biases, and to create a mental default set to “question” instead of “accept.”

For me, one of the very purposes of a law school is just that: to pose more questions than it answers.  From a curriculum standpoint, one question I think a law school should always ask is about the cost of pursuing a certain method or a certain end-goal over another.  We should constantly engage in critical inquiry about the process of formal law-making through statutory construction, common law analysis, and rulemaking.  Who gets to decide what the law is?  How does that reflect the assumptions of the class with resources to litigate, and the class with resources to become judges?  How does the law play an instrumental role in maintaining structures of power and privilege?  What were the consequences of, for example, Brown v. Board of Ed and how can we thoughtfully critique the decision to learn about our own efforts at formal legal reform in this day and age?

I hope that all professors, beginning in the first class of law school, continue to use their positions of power to question even the “bright-line law” that might seem beyond question — or beyond interest.  For even the most basic-seeming principle has been originally put forth, interpreted, and codified by human beings.  There is no rule that is truly neutral, that truly does not play a role in ensuring or inhibiting access to justice.  There is nothing in the law that is beyond questioning, or beyond seeking to understand the assumptions within. One of the most frustrating refrains to me is if and when a student complains that they just want to learn the “black letter law,” as if this is somehow the beginning and the end of the inquiry.  Even the most seemingly-fixed legal principles evolved from somewhere.  They involved real human stories and real human costs.  If we are to be a part of the fight in the future, even if we don’t know exactly which fight this might be, we need to understand how the game came about and how it is rigged from the beginning.

I’ve been lucky that the classes I’ve taken have exposed me to Derrick Bell; Kimberle Crenshaw; Audre Lord; Angela Harris; and so many other critical scholars. The CLEAR Perspectives series has been one of the most important pieces of my law school life, and I know and trust that the Center will continue to play a role in fostering the intellectual and activist vibrancy of this institution for years to come. However, this critical methodology should not apply only to the courses that might seem to naturally lend themselves more to conversations about race, ableism, gender, class, and other privileges, but rather to all courses as a means of inquiry that facilitates students questioning their own roles in systems of power.

Access to Justice After Law School

And once we’ve been afforded the opportunity to think deeply in law school about our own power as lawyers, and our own sets of privilege as differently-situated individuals within an institutional setting, I hope the law school continues to facilitate public interest work for its graduates.  I firmly believe that access to justice is the most important pressing issue of our time — not just for lawyers, but because I believe that we are on the brink of an economic revolution more broadly.  Our generation, which has felt severe effects of the economic downturn of 2009, will have a major part to play in large, systemic redistribution efforts across America.

But the situation as it stands for people without our educational privilege is extremely dire; people need help now with whatever protections the system can provide. California Supreme Court Associate Justice Goodwin Liu, when speaking at our school a couple years ago, said the following:

[Referencing a statistic that there is less than one legal services attorney for every 10,000 indigent people.] “That means if you filled Qualcomm Stadium to its capacity, you’d have seven lawyers to serve all of them….And if they gave each client just 30 minutes, it would take them seven months to meet with everybody, and that’s working around the clock, 24/7, without breaks. It’s no wonder the majority of low-income people in our country don’t bother to seek a lawyer, even when they have a very serious problem. To lower these barriers to justice, we all have to do our share and then some.”

Judge Liu’s imagery has stuck with me through the years.  However, it is easy and tempting to picture a faceless crowd in the masses at Qualcomm Stadium.  To view underrepresentation in terms of numbers, and not in terms of the human element.  Perhaps we block out the faces in the crowd because it’s too overwhelming if we don’t.  Perhaps this is a psychological self-defense mechanism.

It’s important to see past our blindness and to, in the words of the brilliant poet Mary Oliver, “look[…] into the faces of that frightened crowd.” This crowd has become a bit more real for many of us in the past few years, as members of our networks begin seeking us out for our expertise and education.  I’ve watched as our Class of 2016 Facebook group (and the larger student page as a whole) has consistently informally helped each other out in the bulk course of what ordinary people need. People have asked on behalf of friends experiencing domestic violence, family members who are being evicted, mentors who were in a car crash, and grandparents receiving misleading mail.

What people truly need legal advice for is not necessarily huge actions, and the work of a lawyer need not be what we typically consider to be grandiose or heroic.  People need help with ordinary life events like divorces, evictions, benefits, accidents, citations.  We are much better equipped to handle these issues in our own lives now than we would have been three years ago (which is why our advice is being sought out).  Even as the systems become increasingly more familiar for each of us, however, all the more responsibility we have to remember just how difficult they are to navigate. Our law school, and our discourse as students, needs to continue to fight for ways to support this kind of work.

Unfortunately, many of us know far too well what this looks like on the ground right now.  Going after a public interest job these days seemingly involves a long-term commitment to job insecurity.  While many of your 3L colleagues will be celebrating their upcoming moves, Bar trips, and the like, you will be desperately sending out hundreds of job applications, trying to make connections, and despairing about the (too short) six-month grace period for loan repayment timeline.  It is an incredibly stressful time, and I can understand the temptation to not want to be a part of this world.

So what more can our law school do to support access to legal services in the desert of funding opportunities? Two examples come to mind.  (1) On a micro, institutional level, our law school can continue to play an important role in supporting public interest work by providing robust fellowship opportunities for grads.  This year’s Leverage Fellowships and Public Interest Fellowships are good examples.  In the coming years, perhaps these programs can be redesigned to launch application periods in earlier months so public interest-minded students can enjoy job security earlier rather than later.  I am unfamiliar with the details of these programs’ design, but familiar with the large amount of effort that went into their crafting; students can push to be a larger role in these conversations in the future.  (2) On a macro level, UCI Law can be at the forefront of lobbying congress for public-supported opportunities for law graduates, such as AmeriCorps options for law students so that fellowships are not directly tied to private-interest firms. This would also emphasize UCI Law’s national name and reputation.  Finally, if there were to be a political shift to the LRAP program, I would hope and expect that UCI Law students and administration would lead the fight against any and all changes that would affect the ability of law graduates to perform legal services.

Conclusion

When speaking with a professor the other day, we were discussing the old adage “nobody ever lies on their deathbed and says ‘I wish I had spent one more day at the office.'” The professor told me that while he thought that was true, it was equally true that many people lie on their deathbeds thinking “I wish I had spent more time at a different office.”

Good news for us all: we’ve already taken the first step toward not having any of those deathbed regrets just by being here!! Law school is the time when you get to think about what office you want to be at (if you want to be at an office at all).  It is the time to think about what kinds of battles and pressing problems you want to be a part of.  Don’t lose yourself in the midst and the hurry and the busyness of the work you have to do in law school.  Don’t let someone else think for you or make your decisions for you.

Take time to think — really think — and, if you need to, turn to your classmates in this process of brainstorming how *you* fit in to the greater good.  Give each other advice as stewards of the public interest and as mirrors to each other.  I firmly believe that UCI Law’s best asset moving forward is its people.  You will find at least one, if not twenty, people here that you can talk to, and at least one, if not ten, faculty members who are here, specifically, at UCI Law, because they want to be a part of the journey.  The whole idea of being here is that the work of a lawyer is not monolithic nor pre-destined.  We are supposed to be figuring it out as we go, asking questions, and demanding that more questions be asked of us than answered.

The theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman advised: “don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Don’t let yourself get shuttled along in the crowd or dismayed along the journey.  It’s a harder fight to figure out what you want and to risk the lack of job security for an indeterminate amount of time.

But that fight is both worth it and necessary.

In the end, you get to find the thing that makes you come alive, and you get to go do it. And so many people across the country and beyond need you now.

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