Teaching Social Justice in Law Schools: Whose Morality Is It?

Document Type


Publication Date

May 2017


A few years ago, when I began interviewing for a position as a law professor, Pepperdine University School of Law invited me to interview for a position on their impressive law faculty. The Vice-Chair of the Faculty Appointments Committee asked if I would send for their review, as part of their normal evaluation process, a statement of my research agenda and a brief description of my teaching philosophy. These requests are relatively standard, but the third request was quite unusual — the Chair asked if I would also provide a statement describing how I could contribute to the mission of the University and the law school, including, of note to me, a description of my involvement, if any, with a community of faith. I responded that I was uncomfortable with a discussion of my faith, or my involvement in a faith community, as part of my professional interactions, and thus, declined the interview. However, the experience remained with me as I pondered the question that their faculty at the law school had already answered — what role should the personal ethics and morality of a law professor play in teaching?At the time of the interview, I was teaching full-time at Georgetown University, a Catholic Jesuit university, and currently, I teach at DePaul University, a Catholic Vincentian university. In both instances, the universities promote certain values in their missions and seek to incorporate those social justice values into the curriculum. The law schools at both institutions promote an ideal of social justice that encourages law students to provide pro bono legal assistance, either in legal clinics or through pro bono programs, to those financially unable to afford it. However, a growing number of law schools go beyond simply making these social justice opportunities available to those students who choose to participate. Instead, some law schools now mandate legal clinics and pro bono service, many of which serve the dual purpose of promoting social justice and legal education, as a condition of graduation.As a result, law professors, specifically those teaching in a law school legal clinic, are in a unique position to shape the social justice morality of law students. Many law professors embrace this role, extensively writing that clinicians, specifically, are in the best position to develop the next generation of social justice lawyers and have a duty to do so. Social justice advocacy is often an integral aspect of legal clinics and many law professors, as part of this advocacy, train students to view certain legal events as social or legal injustices and instill in the student a sense of obligation to resolve them.This Article vigorously advocates for exposing law students to social justice legal issues, but in contrast to other participants in this conversation, concludes that mandatory pro bono, while reflective of my personal ideals, is an encroachment upon law students’ personal morality and an attempt to impose social justice service upon students based upon the moral and ethical lens of professors. This Article also concludes that mandatory legal clinics, while providing vital legal training and serving a population that is unquestionably in need of robust legal services, should only be mandatory when there is a sufficient variety of clinical offerings reflecting a meaningful range of social justice activities that extend beyond a limited set of moral views.In April 2015, I was invited to speak at a symposium at Indiana University — Bloomington where I similarly argued that law schools, through their experiential learning opportunities, and summer and post-graduation financial support for public interest and social justice undertakings, impose a social justice morality upon law students. After the extensive debate that ensued from the publication of those arguments, this Article seeks to continue that debate and expand on these timely questions.