Law school is an ivory tower. It exists hundreds of miles above our clients’ on-the-ground experiences. We sit in these rooms—divorced from reality—deriving “holdings” from age-old judicial opinions. We theorize, contemplate, and speculate about principles of law from our aerial view. And in the “elevated” exercises of the traditional law school class’s Socratic method, we students remain so far removed from the everyday problems and realities our future clients face.
It’s no wonder, then, that I keep hearing that law school teaches you everything about the law . . . except how to be a lawyer. Lawyering—and especially public service lawyering—demands an intimate connection with our clients’ lived experiences, with what is actually happening on the ground. We cannot foster that connection from behind the bars of the ivory tower’s windows. We cannot learn to be a lawyer from way up there.
We need to get out. We need to break the bars of the ivory tower’s windows; we need to foster a better connection between our learning and our future clients’ lived experiences; we need to stop only theorizing and start realizing how on-the-ground experiences are the best places to learn lawyering. Not only will this make us better lawyers in the future (giving our future clients better advocates), but it will also improve our experience in law school right now.
So for the second half of law school, I have spent as much time as possible getting out of the ivory tower. Looking back, I wish I had started sooner because my most valuable experiences have been those that are intricately tied to real-world practical experiences. I learned more about criminal law and criminal procedure in three weeks of Criminal Defense Clinic than I learned in three months of class. I learned more about professional responsibility in my first few days as an extern at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Office of the Public Defender than I learned in a whole semester of classroom instruction. I learned more about trial work by prepping for a single jury trial with a local public defender than I learned throughout all of Trial Advocacy.
Now I don’t mean to hate on classes, but I do mean to emphasize that most traditional law school classes have done very little for me. (And that’s even when I fit perfectly the white male demographic for whom the traditional law school class dynamic is designed. The white male bias in law school learning deserves a whole separate blog post.) The classes that have been most beneficial are the ones that felt nothing like a typical law school class. The oral advocacy skills course I took from Professor Molly Shadel had me up on my feet giving informal speeches every day before transitioning to courtroom-setting advocacy like opening and closing statements. The short course I took on women’s experiences in the criminal justice system—taught by Robin Steinberg and Ruth Hamilton, two actual public defenders who took a break from their day jobs to teach the course—was filled with stories of their actual clients’ actual experiences. Even Professor Greg Mitchell’s evidence class, a course that many professors teach in a traditional format, was filled with hypotheticals based on real scenarios, challenging us to think about how the rules of evidence play out in real life. The farther out of the ivory tower I get and the closer to the ground I get, the more I learn.
If you want to be as practice-ready as you can possibly be by the time you graduate, get out of the ivory tower. If you want to make the most of your three years of law school, get out of the ivory tower. If you want to have meaningful connections with clients while you’re still in school, get out of the ivory tower.
Take as many clinics as you can. Extern, intern, and volunteer as much as you can. Take classes from professors with practical experience, from professors who fill their classroom discussion with real-world examples. And if you are stuck with a professor who doesn’t, take it upon yourself to inject discussions of the real-world context in which these legal principles operate into your conversations with professors and friends. Get out of the ivory tower and plug in to your future clients’ lived experiences. It has been the best part of my law school experience. I only wish I had started doing it sooner.
Jeremy Bennie, a 3L from central Massachusetts, graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park. During his time at UVa, Jeremy interned with a multitude of organizations including the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Human Rights. Most recently, he interned with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia as well as the Charlottesville-Albemarle Office of the Public Defender. After graduation, Jeremy will be working as a public defender with the Bronx Defenders in New York City.