Pro Bono, Public Interest and More: A Look at a Student-Led Initiative to Elevate the Public Good at Denver Law

By Alexi Freeman and Katie Steefel

“The first thing I lost in law school was the reason I came.” This famous line from well-known law professor Bill Quigley’s article, “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice,” has represented the disheartening reality for countless generations of law students. Research over the past 40 years has shown how students arrive at law school to find a job to “help others” but leave law school with no such plans. In fact, in the 1970s, Robert Stover studied this phenomenon at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Stover polled students entering law school at Denver Law and again during their third year to identify what type of full-time job they would most enjoy upon graduation. Thirty-three percent of students rated public interest as their first choice at the beginning of law school. However, within just three short years, that number had more than halved, falling to 16 percent. Stover summarized his qualitative observations as follows: “I found considerable evidence that my classmates’ view of the world, and of the legal world in particular, was altered in ways that diminished their desire to practice public interest law, by markedly changing their expectations concerning certain types of jobs.”

Much has changed at Denver Law and in legal education since the 70s. The overall trend to embrace experiential learning and to emphasize students’ burgeoning professional identities are just two shifts that may help combat this “public interest drift.” However, despite such advances, a public interest drift still exists at most legal education institutions. According to the National Association for Law Placement, only 7.3 percent of all 2014 law graduates are working in public interest jobs. Legal scholars have long speculated and continue to research why students’ passions and career plans are prone to drastic change during the course of three short years. Factors like financial debt, changed interests, the job market at any particular time or in any specific geographic location, a lack of institutional career development or curricular support at certain schools, and the traditional style and content of legal education (especially during the first year, which some argue even disorients students’ feelings regarding morality and rightness) all likely play a role.

A student-led effort has been underway at Denver Law to try to chip away at this phenomenon. Members of the Chancellor’s Scholars Program — a program that provides scholarships for students who demonstrate a strong commitment to public service — are especially attuned to how legal education can feel a bit isolated from ideals and values centered on the public good. Compelled to create some way to ensure that such values and ideals do not disappear from students’ hearts and minds, the group, with the support of more than 20 other student organizations, developed The Pledge for the Public Good. The Pledge is an effort that aims to show how all areas of the law involve the public good and to help students understand the moral dimensions and social context of the law across subject matters. To do this, faculty members are asked to sign The Pledge, therein voluntarily agreeing to: incorporate a discussion concerning the social context of cases; bring in a practitioner to share a practical perspective; dedicate a session to a public interest lecture; or utilize another tool to lift up the public good in their classes.

To help illustrate how The Pledge can come to life, some faculty members have shared how they incorporate the public good in their lessons. For example, one corporations professor discussed how she continually presses her students to consider the social responsibility of a corporation. She regularly asks questions like, “In an era where the corporate form is being vested with increasing rights and powers, does it also bear increasing obligations? Is the sole purpose of the corporation to make money for its shareholders or should it do more? And, did corporate law need the addition of the ‘social benefit corporation’?” The professor emphasized that “issues concerning the public good arise frequently in all subject matters and can easily be emphasized without detracting from doctrinal coverage.” Her perspective was that it simply “becomes part of the conversation.”

A professor who teaches a first-year course on contracts shared this anecdote:

I try to highlight the issue and other factors that may seem to imply that one party is disadvantaged when in fact they may not be. We often read cases where one party has less education than another, and it is easy to assume that the less educated party is therefore less capable of protecting their interests. I stress that education and intelligence do not correspond! Nor does one’s economic situation in life dictate intelligence. At the same time, these factors must be considered to the extent the law is working unfairly to take advantage of particular classes of people, as in the Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture case.

These examples show us how a number of professors already engage in the methods outlined in The Pledge. Thus, The Pledge validates their efforts and encourages them to continue to embrace such techniques. For those who may not already intentionally seek out ways to integrate a public good component in their classrooms, these examples demonstrate how efforts do not have to be hugely burdensome but can make a real difference in the student experience. In fact, after the first semester of The Pledge’s implementation, a survey of approximately 260 students indicated that 72 percent of them identified professors making connections to the public good.

At present, more than 60 full-time Denver Law faculty have voluntarily signed The Pledge. This is a remarkable example of faculty unity. It serves as a reminder that fostering consciousness of the public good is important and relevant for all future lawyers, regardless of where they may end up. Here at Denver Law, a group of students’ vision has ultimately invigorated students, faculty and staff commitment to fulfill our university’s mission: “to be a private institution dedicated to the public good.” We are eager to see how The Pledge for the Public Good grows and evolves over time, destined to promote the public good in many different ways.

If you are interested in engaging with The Pledge or other public service related activities at Denver Law, contact Alexi Freeman at afreeman@law.du.edu.

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Alexi Freeman is an associate professor of the practice at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, as well as the director of Externships & Public Interest Initiatives. She can be reached at afreeman@law.du.edu.

 

 

 

steefel-headshot-3Katie Steefel is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. She can be reached at ksteefel17@law.du.edu.

 

 

 

 

*This article is adapted from the authors’ previous law review article written on this subject: Freeman and Steefel, “The Pledge for the Public Good: A Student-Led Initiative to Incorporate Morality & Justice in Every Classroom,” 22 WASH. & LEE J. CIVIL RTS. & SOC. JUST. 49 (2016), and published in The Docket.

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