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Harsh criticism of Law School unmerited

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Displaying the rhetorical skills that will make him a very successful litigator and betraying his claim that his legal education is a “joke,” my classmate Jim Paulino crafted a very powerful, and very misleading, image of what attending Notre Dame Law School is like (“Law students show discontent,” April 17). In his zeal to denigrate the institution which has so aptly prepared him for the future, he misunderstands the purpose of the curriculum at a national law school, mischaracterizes the particular emphasis and mission of Notre Dame, and misrepresents the teaching abilities of the stellar faculty at our school.

Paulino complains of the lack of “practicality” at the law school. Setting aside his self-contradiction on this point (he notes the practicality of our trial advocacy program, which is duplicated annually in countless law firms across the country to train other new lawyers), he seems to have missed the elementary fact that at nationally-respected law schools like Notre Dame, students come from and return to nearly every state in the Union to practice. It is impossible for a law school with such reach to present practical knowledge of black-letter law that will be of immediate use to the young attorney. Rather, Notre Dame, like all national or “elite” law schools, offers a general curriculum focused on broad rules of law, highlighting theoretical underpinnings and policy tensions running throughout. Armed with a solid theoretical understanding of various areas of the law, students then go on after graduation to learn the state-specific law they need to pass the bar exam in their chosen state of practice.

If Paulino wanted his three years of law school to be an extended exercise in practical education preparing him to apply written legal rules with only a minimum of actual engagement in thinking about or understanding them, he could have chosen any one of the nation’s fine regional or local law schools, which traditionally teach the black-letter law of the state in which they sit, eschewing larger theoretical and policy discussions. I am sorry to hear Paulino regrets his choice; I am certain he is in the minority in doing so.

Second, Paulino suggests the law school emphasizes its Catholic image at the expense of offering a quality legal education. As a non-Catholic, I find his suggestion laughable to the point of absurdity. He seems to regard the existence of a course on canon law as an affront to his learning, even though he was entirely free to avoid this elective class. He also refers to Jurisprudence and Ethics II as “joke” classes that are a “waste” of his time and money. While these classes are required, they are neither a waste nor a joke, except to the extent that students fail to take them seriously. Jurisprudence offers the opportunity to place our newly acquired legal knowledge in context as it relates to the outside world, and helps us to understand the nature of the profession we are about to enter and the intellectual foundation of the tools we have just been given. Ethics II provides a moment each week for reflections on real-world dilemmas that we will soon have to face in our careers – in fact, Ethics II may be the most “practical” course in the curriculum. 

While I do not disagree with calls for greater transparency and communication from the law school administration, not one of us can claim ignorance as to the unapologetic manner in which Notre Dame Law School examines these ethical, moral and philosophical questions even as it delivers a first rate legal education. To the extent Paulino considers such examination to be a “joke,” I submit that Paulino made a poor choice three years ago in choosing where to go to law school.

Third, and most egregiously, Paulino extends his smearing of his soon-to-be alma mater by suggesting that “a lot” of the professors here “can’t teach,” and further suggesting that many professors are retained because they help the school’s “Catholic image” despite having nothing to offer students. After having taken classes from some 23 faculty members, I have yet to meet the professor that meets Paulino’s fanciful depiction. Many of the best professors are Catholic; many are not. Some of the less adept professors are Catholic; some are not. There is simply no correlation between Catholicism and teaching ability, as Paulino would have it.

More to the point, the faculty is on balance one of the finest assemblages of teachers from which I have had the privilege to learn. Of all the areas to mention where the law school could use some improvement – and there many – faculty quality is not one of them. As the article noted elsewhere, Notre Dame has several professors who are rising stars in legal academia – former Supreme Court clerks who are widely popular among students and recognized as outstanding teachers. More senior faculty are nationally known as established leaders in their field. And if some of our most brilliant and eccentric faculty have difficulty making themselves understood to today’s students, I think that reflects more on the unwillingness of today’s students to put in the work to take advantage of resources at their disposal than it does on anyone’s ability to teach.

In sum, I wish it to be known that the school that Paulino describes is not the school I have attended the past three years. Notre Dame offered me, and I readily accepted, exactly the nationally-based, theoretical and foundational legal education I expected to receive; additional focus and reflection on the questions of ethics, morals and justice that I was unlikely to get at most other law schools; and an array of brilliant, accomplished professors as eager to teach me their craft as I was to learn it from them. I agree with Paulino that there are certain problems of responsiveness and communication within the law school that need to be addressed. There my agreement ends.

Brian E. Foster

third-year law student

April 17