Login | June 17, 2019

Akron Law expands social justice offerings

Legal News Reporter

Published: December 14, 2018

Two years ago law professor Brant Lee was charged with expanding The University of Akron School of Law’s existing diversity and social justice initiatives.

Since then Lee has unveiled a fellows program and UA law students have formed a new chapter of the American Constitution Society.

“Just as we were putting these programs in place, we saw an increase in interest from students,” said Lee, director of diversity and social justice initiatives at Akron Law. “Young people see injustice in the world and they want to do something about it.”

Akron Law students aren’t the only ones expressing such interests.

According to a report entitled “Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School,” public-spirited factors top the list of reasons that college students are considering law school.

Based on a survey by Gallup for the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), the report finds a desire to pursue a career in politics, government or public service is the number one reason undergraduates are interested in law school. Other top factors include being passionate about the work, opportunities to give back to society and to advocate for social change.

Qualifying for a high paying job and the prestige associated with being an attorney ranked lower on the list.

In a press release, Judith Areen, executive director of AALS stated, “This is the first known study in more than 50 years of undergraduate views on law school. It is our hope that this report will be useful not only to law schools and aspiring law students, but to everyone who cares about law and justice. We all have a stake in the quality of the next generation of lawyers and judges.”

The study was conducted in 2017 in response to the significant decline in the number of law school applicants in the United States. However, things are now looking up with the Law School Admission Council reporting an increase in applications during the 2018 admission cycle.

Matt Wilson, a professor of law who also served as president of the university from 2016 to 2018 and as dean of the law school from 2014 to 2016, said the results of the report are not surprising, noting that the findings may be related to the uptick in applications.

“I have been integrally involved in law school admissions over the past 15 years,” said Wilson. “In fact, I am on the admissions committee this year. Increasingly, I hear students discuss their desire to give back as one of the top reasons they want to come to Akron Law.

“When I previously traveled the country to talk about law school, one of the top motivations of students was financial. Another was finding a pathway for their undergraduate degrees. While I think that both motivations still play a role, it seems that the recent discord over politics and overall concern about society has motivated more people to want to engage and play an active role in helping overcome societal challenges.

“Based on my conversations with prospective students, this appears to be one reason why more people are considering law school. It might even explain the recent uptick in applications.”

Wilson said when he became dean of the law school he was open to building upon the social justice and public service programs.

“Akron Law already had a public service requirement for all our law students,” said Wilson. “Law students constantly served on an individual basis or through programs organized through the law school. There were also a host of clinics that allow students to help community members who are in need while gaining invaluable experience at the same time.

“As a law school, we decided that we wanted to add even more through new clinical programs such as our Immigration & Human Rights Law Clinic, Domestic Relations Clinic and more.”

Another one of the newer options is the Social Justice Lawyering seminar and clinic.

Lee and Associate Clinical Professor Joann Sahl initially taught the course together, working with students to identify a community need and pairing them with a nonprofit or governmental entity, where they helped develop a solution to the problem.

Lee now teaches the seminar alone. Last year he unveiled the school’s Social Justice Fellows program.

During the initial year, nine students were accepted, including five 1Ls.

“Going forward the program will only be open to 1Ls and we will choose five each year,” said Lee.

“The students meet every other week during the semester and discuss ways to positively impact the community. The idea is to create a forum where students can pursue their passion to give back,” Lee said.

“I meet with the students individually and we brainstorm about what type of experiences they would like to have, including externships. I try to connect the students with opportunities in the areas in which they are interested.”

Lee said many times students begin law school with the goal of changing the world and get bogged down in coursework and exams.

“We want to create a vehicle to support their passions,” said Lee. “Research shows many students lose sight of their ideals during law school and we are trying to shift that trend.”

Lee said the Akron Law chapter of the American Constitution Society, which was created in 2017, has quickly become one of the largest and most active student organizations on campus.

The ACS recognized the chapter as the 2017-18 Rising Chapter of the Year.

“There is no better way to make a real difference in a democratic society than to become a lawyer,” said Akron Law Dean Christopher (C.J.) Peters. “At Akron Law, we are proud to have one of the most exciting social justice and public interest law programs in the country and we’re grateful for Professor Lee’s leadership in this area.”