Building the Public Interest Law School of the 21st Century: Two Years in Review

Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

For this year’s last issue of Voice, I decided to reflect on two years of institution and community building at UCI Law with a particular look at social justice and public interest. My thoughts are intended to be a starting point for a community-wide conversation on how far we have come from August 2009 in creating the public interest, socially just law school of the 21st century. In terms of a commitment to social justice and public interest, these two years offer mixed data; admittedly, there have been and will be grand accomplishments, but the record would be incomplete without acknowledging some shortcomings.

One accomplishment was the conference on Race, Law, and Socio-Economic Class, organized by the School’s Center on Law, Equality, and Race (CLEAR). Professor Lee’s immigration symposium last month and this week’s Environmental Law Society A3 conference are also good examples. These events reflect at least some institutional support for public interest lawyering. The school has also done an incredible job, much to Professor Weinstein’s credit , in arranging a public interest and social justice-oriented speaker series. The recent mooting on the Wal-Mart case and Connie Rice’s lecture are just a few illustrations. Finally, there remains some evidence that hiring decisions have been made with public service in mind; Laura Fry’s experience with legal aid in Southern California will inform the way she runs the Career Development Office.

Students, of course, have contributed to the social justice culture at UCI Law. We consistently have opportunity after opportunity to participate in pro bono projects, thanks to Anna Davis’s hard work. Every week offers another buffet of intriguing student organization events that tackle issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc. uRSA’s upcoming Law Admissions Workshop is only one example of the time and energy students in our community commit to social justice. PISC of PILF, although in need of a new name, also seems to have its boots on the floor, hard at work.

Taken in the aggregate, these data affirm UCI’s progress toward becoming the public interest law school of the 21st century. It is unfortunate, then, that our record has some major blemishes.

Since our school’s founding, women of color in both staff and faculty positions have left for one reason or another. Although these decisions are not problematic alone, they point to a disturbing trend and may indicate an institutional culture where women of color are under-appreciated. I am aware that recent hiring (Dean Austin, Funmi Arewa) cut against this, but the departure of Professor Moran and the upcoming exit of Professor Jones leave a void in women of color scholarship, one that cannot adequately be filled even with Dean Chacon’s brilliance.

Furthermore, subtle signs mark a potential institutional undervaluation of public interest. For example, why was there a clerkship nuts and bolts informational session in January, but UCI Law students have to wait until April for a fellowship nuts and bolts session, organized only after students requested it? Even the fact that a clerkship committee exists within the administration and that public interest has been relegated to PISC of PILF, a student-run group, seems on its face unequal and suggests that rankings and prestige take priority over nurturing public interest lawyering.

The administration may not be the sole bad actor, either. The recent unveiling of the names of only 25 2Ls who participated in the “Donate a Day’s Pay” campaign toward PILF grants raises some questions about not only how committed students are to public interest but also how committed students are to giving back to the school in general. Understandably, financial circumstances might justify not contributing to PILF, but selfishness, apathy, and greed do not, particularly when the livelihood of fellow UCI Law students depends on one’s generosity.

Given this mixed bag of results, as we mark the close of year two in UCI Law’s history, I hope we take a moment to reflect on our school’s public interest consciousness, considering the good, the bad, and the ugly, and heed this call to action to work deliberately toward building the public interest law school for the 21st century.