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Raising the Bar

Raising the Bar

The simple powerful premise of the Rhodes Trust is that higher education makes a positive difference for the world.  The wisdom of this proposition is particularly evident in the successful leadership of the large numbers of Rhodes Scholars from around the world who used their legal education at Oxford and elsewhere in the service of others.  We are approaching six generations of legally trained Rhodes Scholars who have advanced the public interest in myriad roles as architects of economic opportunity, peacemakers at home and abroad, builders of bridges over chasms of differences no matter how wide and deep, defenders of liberty and equal justice for all.  Their intellect, strength of character and instincts to lead also enable them to serve as educators and role models for young lawyers everywhere who in turn become the new guardians of democracy.  A worthy challenge for many second century Rhodes Scholars is to continue to lead the way in raising the bar; to promote improvements in legal education and the profession.

That the study of law has been one of the most successful paths for achieving the purposes of the Rhodes Scholarships is hardly surprising.  Civilisation has endured and progressed at least since Greco-Roman times by communities living according to rules of civility, common decency, and commerce which enable people to rise from chaos and live cooperatively in harmony despite their differences.  These principles have been absorbed and recorded in the tenets of all faiths such as the greatest universal commandment:  love thy neighbor as thyself.  And we live today in a time of many epic reminders of the role that law plays in saving mankind from its worst nightmares, and how it helps us reach for our dreams.  Recently we observed the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – old small pieces of vellum containing obscure Latin abbreviated phrases -- whose concepts of freedom and due process are like ancestral legal genomes found now in the DNA of each of our own respective national birth certificates and jurisprudence.  In America, for example, there are bits of Magna Carta over the centuries that have been repeatedly rewritten, reissued, reinterpreted, and repopulated into the very code of our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and today these algorithmic lines are still found in the legal software of our digitally interconnected increasingly borderless world. 

Nor can we or should we ever forget that it is now 70 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the start of the Nuremberg trials that began to hold the villains of the holocaust accountable for their crimes against the human race.  To this day victims are still recovering through legal process some measure of their losses.  It is within that same span of time when the idea that every person is entitled to four freedoms:  freedom of speech, of worship, from want and from fear was first proposed and then incorporated into a legal charter for all mankind.  And, in the United States, it is now more than fifty years since enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the march on Selma, and other milestones of the pivotal historic social movement that brought us closer together toward racial justice in my home country. 

Yet much work remains to be done for new lawyers.  Just as in the text of Magna Carta and in the language of the United States Constitution, the full benefits of the rule of law were not -- and still have not been extended universally and equally.  We see the shocking rise again of anti-Semitism in Europe and the spread of violence and anarchy in the name of religious extremism around the world.  We also see the disturbing reappearance of nativism and xenophobia as the heartbreaking, haunting plight mounts for homeless and nationless migrants and refugees.  Sadly, in America we are experiencing violence erupting with alarming frequency, in communities across our country, with distrust, fear and injury, pitting people against protectors and neighbors against each other, all people who in reality share the same common desire for opportunity, respect, dignity, and safety.  And we witness the economic gap increasing between those of means and the less advantaged.  Meanwhile, innovation and economic growth stretch the fabric of traditional regulation to its limit while new legal fields rapidly emerge ranging from health to financial compliance, from privacy to cyber security, from policies to power the earth to those to keep its environment in balance, from rules for driverless vehicles of all kinds to rights for nationless people from all points of the compass.  So, in truth the opportunities to lead and serve as lawyers are boundless.

These are neither small responsibilities nor simple tasks for future lawyers.  Whether peace or war, safety or violence, freedom or constraint, liberty or domination, right or wrong, faith or despair, plenty or want, love or hate become the exception or the rule, are outcomes which will significantly be in the hands of newly minted lawyers around the globe, individually and collectively, striving as champions empowered with the critical thinking tools and intellectual weapons honed by their legal education to make the world a better place.  The value of Rhodes Scholars performing both the private and public service roles of lawyers has never been greater than now.

However, because the nature of the world that these lawyers will serve is changing so dramatically and so rapidly, legal education and the profession must too change to assure that lawyers and law can continue to perform their traditional essential role.  We are making a start in the United States.  Against a backdrop of skepticism, criticism, and downright misinformation about legal education, some progressive law schools are aggressively embracing the economic, geographic, technological, and global changes that are determining the future of the legal profession:  These schools are working to defy the gravitational forces of doom and gloom by employing creative approaches to delivering a quality law school education and by increasing their graduates’ competitiveness to meet the demands of today’s broad, varied, yet challenging job market.  For too long all aspects of legal education and qualifying graduates as fit to be new lawyers have been passive, one-size-fits-all bureaucratic, episodic and increasingly expensive.  We can do better by striving to make the “snout to tail” experience from admissions to leaving to working in practice more dynamic, bespoke-to-fit individual talents and interests, continuous and valuable.

Precisely because legal training is a major pathway to leadership, we also must work tirelessly and relentlessly to assure that access to the profession is inclusive.  If talented, qualified and motivated people from every diverse sector of our communities are able to become lawyers, we deny them and those who they would serve access to justice, and we undermine the legitimacy of the rule of law in the eyes of the underrepresented.  It is possible to remove unacceptable barriers to becoming a lawyer by addressing students’ understandable concerns over affordability, accommodations for diversity, achieving educational excellence and being able to secure a job upon graduation that is meaningful; law schools in different countries have lowered the cost of a law school education, including reducing tuition.  They are also experimenting with admissions policies which take the full measure of an individual beyond mere simple arithmetic formulas based on test scores, and they are overhauling the curriculum in many ways, including strengthening practical training. 

While this momentum undoubtedly represents a new, rich and wonderful beginning for aspiring attorneys, it is of even greater long-term importance for people everywhere. The fact is we need more highly qualified new lawyers than ever before.  We will need lawyers who are free to practice the type of law that serves their heart-felt interests as well as the needs of their fellow citizens, without the influence and constraints brought about by unmanageable student debt that forces them to only seek the highest paycheck to find relief. Unless law schools do what they can to make legal education more affordable and more useful, they will continue to price themselves out of business, contribute to the high cost of legal services that most people need, and widen the growing gap in access to justice.

In New York City, if you travel on the number 4 subway train – which starts in Woodlawn in the Bronx, and goes through the East Side of Manhattan, past City Hall and Wall Street, onto Brooklyn Heights, before ending in Crown Heights – look at the hands holding on to the poles in each car, of the people getting on and off the subway.  You will see the hands of people across the spectrum of races and ethnicities – black, white, brown, the whole rainbow.  You see the hands of the people from every walk of life, and from the rich to the struggling.  Those are the hands of all the people of our own city, our country and the world.  They are the hands of the people who need good lawyers.  And they are the hands of many people who may be well-qualified to be lawyers who can serve society.  My worry, however, is that our outmoded, but improving, system of legal education and licensing new lawyers still is unintentionally precluding many able and motivated people from becoming lawyers. Rhodes Scholar lawyers can help us, as they have done so admirably in the past, to do better in the future.


Dean Nick Allard (New York & Merton 1974) is Dean of Brooklyn Law School and read PPE as a Rhodes Scholar. Photo Credit: Deval Kulshrestha - File:1660 blk 19329 zoom.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40160925

About The Rhodes Scholar Blog

The Rhodes Scholar Blog features the excellent research from our Rhodes Scholars and their insights into important topical issues. If you would like to contribute, please contact claire.skilton@rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk