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What I really think about NDLS

Letter to the Editor | Friday, April 20, 2007

This week has seen opinions from all over the spectrum of viewpoints about Notre Dame Law School. One of those opinions was found in this paper, and attributed to me. Many of the other opinions were in response to my quotes in The Observer. But, none of those viewpoints were entirely mine. The quotes were out of context and didn’t do justice to what I really feel about the school. And as the responses referenced those same quotes, they didn’t get my position correct either. So, I’d like to explain what was said, what should have been said, and what was omitted, to provide a full understanding of my much discussed opinion of NDLS.

First, regarding what was actually said, Ken Fowler called my cell phone this past Monday and requested an interview about the Law School’s drop in rankings. Of course I obliged Ken. I knew who he was since I was his TA for Father Bob Dowd’s Religion and Politics course last spring. I figured we’d talk. Our conversation lasted roughly 25 minutes, and I explained my views of the school. At one point, I said, “And you can quote me on this,” assuming that apart from that instance, I could drop my guard because I would not be quoted. But (and I have now been told that this is common practice) I was recorded without my knowledge, and everything I said was “fair game” for the article.

As I’m sure my friends (and enemies) can agree, this law student has a tendency to embellish his point. That’s just one of the many skills the NDLS Trial Advocacy program teaches you. Unfortunately, when a paper reports “sound bytes,” a speaker’s more colorful statements can be divorced from their intended purpose. The quotes used were taken out of their context, and should be seen for what they were – about 30 seconds from a conversation that lasted roughly 1,750.

Next, what should have been said (more clearly) in the article? Well, my first point to Ken was that, in my opinion, the Law School requires particular courses that aren’t the most practical, vis. Jurisprudence and Ethics II, and that those courses are inappropriately understood as an integral part of the Law School’s mission to educate a “different” kind of lawyer. And my second point was to suggest that while these courses are highlighted, other elements of a full legal education, which I explained to Ken included the study of the Federal Rules of Evidence and Trial Ad[vocacy], are eclipsed.

Part of making those points was to make abundantly clear to Ken my opinion that jurisprudence isn’t very practical … or as I put it, “jurisprudence is a joke.” I have nothing against jurisprudence, per se; I have a BA with dual majors in politics and legal philosophy and a MA in legal philosophy. It’s the implementation that I find problematic. The administration can require the course, but it cannot tell the faculty how to teach or evaluate the classes. That results in a marked gap between the concept of the course and the rather deficient form it actually takes, or what many students would call a waste of our time. The law is important, as is good philosophy. But when you require nearly 100 adults to squeeze into an overcrowded room and be force fed some mutation of legal philosophy, that exercise rings more comical than constructive.

As a corollary, I had hoped to make it clear that this school lacks a strong focus on the practical, particularly the Trial Advocacy program. Consider the following. This Law School does not have one room that is capable of properly accommodating a jury trial. And the drawings of the new courtroom show it is designed for appellate arguments, and not trials. Here’s a shocker; you generally don’t have an appeal unless you have a trial, but here at NDLS, that’s apparently not a concern. How does that make sense?

Finally, what was completely omitted from the article was my actual opinion of NDLS. Simply stated, I am proud that I will be a graduate of such a great Law School. I like the faculty, the administration and the strong community here. Most importantly, I feel as though I have received an education that has prepared me to enter the workforce better equipped than students from almost any other school.

In addition, I am personally committed to NDLS’ Catholic mission, as exemplified in the character of faculty and scholarship at this school. I find that often it is the Christian ethic of professors, such as professor Matt Barrett, that can motivate them to pursue their vocation as educators with an unparalleled dedication. Equally as important is the work of professor John Finnis, who is the epitome of a Catholic law professor and foremost among my intellectual heroes.

Now it is my personal opinion that when the commitment to a “Catholic mission” supersedes the practical necessities of a legal education, this school gets into trouble. And this, I believe, is one reason why the school’s rankings are not as high as they could be. This can be seen in the failure to require something as simple as a course on evidence instead of a second ethics course. It can be seen in the unwaveringly conservative approach to administration that underlies many other actions at the school. And it can be seen in the employment of professors best suited for philosophy-based courses as instructors in the secular law.

A mix of both young and seasoned legal scholars, all of whom respect the school’s Catholic mission, are responsible for teaching these Catholic or philosophy-based courses. I find it unfortunate that additional responsibilities are placed on several seasoned professors who would be better employed to provide the “different” aspects of the NDLS education, faculty who, in my opinion, are unable to teach any substantive – dare I say real – Law School course as well as other teachers. A contract is not a bread bowl. This is a divisive point, but one I am willing to make. The quality of a professor has nothing to do with religious affiliation. Neither does directing the Career Service Office, or being a librarian. But if the first hiring criterion is the ability to promote Catholic thought, the ability to teach substantive law (or do anything else) must come second, or third, or fourth …

So, here’s a suggestion. Hire the best professors you can. Get the best contracts professor. Get the best criminal law professor. Get the best international law professor (oh … we already have her). Use some of that money and get Chemerinsky to come to NDLS. And do it while maintaining a balance between the concept of a Catholic mission and a “secular” legal education.

I am confident that this school enjoys a position among the best Law Schools in the nation in large part because of the contributions of the faculty and the current administration. I am grateful for Dean O’Hara’s leadership both in bringing the Law School into a new and much needed building, as well as working to strengthen the relationship between the administration and the students. I believe that most of the faculty are ranks above their academic peers in scholarship and teaching ability. As with all things in life, I think that there is still room for growth. But … that’s just one man’s opinion.

Jim Paulino

third-year law student

April 19