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Monday, September 18, 2006

Law School Revisited (Part 1 of 5)

Thanks to Dan Markel for asking me to guestblog. I thought I would use this opportunity to talk about Alfredo Mirande’s new book, The Stanford Law Chronicles (Notre Dame Press 2005), which is an ethnographic and critical commentary of his years as a law student at Stanford from 1991 to 1994. Alfredo was deeply involved with the Lawyering for Social Change curriculum, spearheaded by Professors Gerald Lopez, Bill Hing, and Kim Taylor-Thompson, each of whom left Stanford in the mid to late Nineties. Alfredo was a professor of sociology at UC-Riverside before going to law school, and he is still a professor at Riverside, where he has managed to combine his practical, clinical legal training with his sociological research in ethnic studies. His book is an important contribution to the existing literature documenting the law school experience, quite different in temperament and emphasis from the chronicles of Scott Turow in One L, James Osborne in The Paper Chase, Jamie Marquart and Robert Ebert Byrnes in Brush with the Law (part of which is also about Stanford), and of the fictional Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (written by Amanda Brown, an erstwhile Stanford Law student). 

My plan is to address five themes in the book over the course of this week. But first a disclosure. Alfredo is my closest classmate from law school, and his account overlaps with much of my experience. But if Alfredo is Hamlet, agonizing over the alienating effect of hierarchy in legal education and the demise of the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum at Stanford Law School from 1991 to 1994, I am more like Rosencranz and Guildenstern rolled into one. Even that characterization makes me out to be more than I actually was. Despite the intimacy between the author and myself, readers should not take my posts as shilling for his book. As Alfredo’s friend, I want you to read, respect, and most importantly buy his book. But there’s a lot that I found myself disagreeing with in reading his chronicles while at same time deeply enjoying, somewhat, his resurrection of my law school years.

There is something provincial about one law school graduate commenting on his former classmate’s book about shared law school experiences. The potential critique of cronyism is troubling, but even more so is the potential perception that Alfredo and I are just talking among ourselves and not saying anything that is of relevance to the broader community of law faculty. Some of this perception may stem from a dismissive attitude that the book simply provides an ethnic perspective on the tired material of law school alienation, a perspective that sees everything only in terms of race. In other words, the very problem Alfredo diagnoses in the law school experience of being silenced and marginalized may serve to make his book and many important ideas ignored. As someone who was there, shares some of Alfredo’s views, and has been and will be in law school teaching for a while, I hope I can bring my own experiences to bear in making the case for taking the book seriously. 

It is unfortunate that much of the press for the book describes it as providing the Chicano or minority experience on the law student experience. There are many perspectives in this book that traverse the range of minority experiences and viewpoints that exist in contemporary law schools. Alfredo was a non-traditional student, but non-traditional does not mean one thing, and there is a danger of trying to make it mean only ethnic minority. What comes across from Alfredo’s book is not just the experiences of a Chicano, but also those of an older single parent, of a second career seeker, of a person developing an interdisciplinary approach to law, of a person attempting to meld legal theory with legal practice, and most importantly of the rare person who has passion in the pursuit of legal education, viewing it as more than a key to professional and economic success. 

Don Mirande, however, is no Don Quixote, a persona more descriptive of some of the progressive faculty that is the object of his criticism. Recall that Don Quixote became what he was through an obsession with the romantic literature that was popular in his time. The bookish Don substituted romantic notions of character types for flesh and blood people with their real experiences and traumas. Alfredo is a realist, and the forcefulness of his contrasting the ideal of elite legal education and progressive faculty with the realities comes across strongly in two parts of the book. 

The first is the marvelous chapter, entitled Remains of the Day, which describes his experience in a course on legal professions during his third year. I did not take the class, but I experienced it vicariously through Alfredo and years later there is still some freshness to his description of the class as it played out the decline of old law firm hierarchies with the expansion of the profession to include groups outside the white male protestant franchise. The tensions in the profession are reflected in the classroom dynamics, largely through the discussions among the classroom professors, guest practitioners and students about the role of gender and race in the legal profession. I only wish there had been more about the views of Alfredo’s classmates, whose backgrounds and views do not come through. The chapter recounts the progression of the course well, but is somewhat solipsistic. 

The other section I really liked is Alfredo’s striking description of law staff and faculty towards the end of the book: “I sometimes think a mortician’s job is not unlike that of law school staff and faculty. Morticians are trained to be sensitive and empathetic but because the work consists of dealing with death on a daily routine basis, it is by necessity a transitory, fleeting, impersonal intimacy.” I am optimistic enough to think that there is life after law school, and so the law professor’s preparation has a different objective than that of the mortician.  Nonetheless, the law faculty’s superficiality in their sensitivity, in their genuine interest in diversity and difference, and in their commitment to the student as a person rather than as a commodity comes through in his simile.

This post, I hope, provides some background to the book. For the rest of the week, I will address four themes from Alfredo’s book, in this order: (1) the culture of universities and law schools; (2) the depiction of identity politics; (3) the changing meaning of clinical legal education; and (4) the difficult issue of what I call “barbarians as gatekeepers” in the academy.

Posted by Shubha Ghosh on September 18, 2006 at 12:25 AM | Permalink


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