January brings a certain amount of reflection; we are pressed to consider that we stand at the beginning of a New Year, with the capacity to change—or not. Some of us formally declare those things, big or small, that will not survive 2015. A death to bad habits, less-savory personality traits, failing relationships. But we also give life to new aims: finally learning to play the guitar, applying for the dream job, writing a letter once a week (that last one is mine). Ultimately, we hope the cutting back and the moving forward will enable the best, or at least better, version of ourselves.
This practice of resolution-making is particularly relevant for us goal-oriented folks tackling law school. We are susceptible to resolutions – we thrive on achievement, checking off our successes one by one. The beginning of a new year means endless opportunities to achieve something else. And the close of 2014 likewise opens the door to the last of the last. For those of us who have a mere semester standing between us and the Bar, the first job, and the next first thing, the end calls to our attention what is yet undone. This January, 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls alike all will have agreed to do something different, whether to study more or do less (again, the latter is mine).
By definition, resolution-making is a dynamic concept, a cycle of sorts, which entails the process of not only determining where we stand at present, but also cultivating an aspirational vision for improvement. It’s an ongoing exchange between what is and what could or should be. Not for nothing is January named for Janus, the god of beginnings but also transitions.
Transition, progress, or change of this sort is an analytical science. On the one hand, it means crystallizing our intentions. On the other, resolution means “the resulting state.” Our resolutions are both an initial measure of our goals, and a final measure of achievement from previous years, with the ultimate aim of something better. So we reflect, and we resolve.
Law students are well equipped to figure out the beginnings of this cycle—the status quo. I consider the past two and half years and recognize that law school has endowed me with the ability, above all else, to suss out the current state of things. All those cases, memoranda, articles, cold calls were thrown my way to hone my “situation sense” and to figure out what the law is, where things have settled, the resulting state.
As essential as this skill is, though, the science of resolution-making demands more from us. Especially as attorneys, charged with ensuring “the quality of justice,” we must learn to cultivate the vision necessary to practice the second step of resolution-making. Looking at the challenges the legal system has faced in the past six months alone, the system itself demands we do so. And, as one might intuit, the legal education must teach us more.
I’m not alone in this thinking, or so my situation sense tells me. Our school seems to be in a time of progression and transition: its own New Year of sorts. It’s a time of promise, in the sense that there have been both express assurances and the perception of something favorable to come. In terms of transition, we’ve installed a new guard in the form of Dean Lester. As far as existing progress goes, CLS is embracing “experiential learning,” unmooring us from the confining vessel of the traditional classroom.
Its conception of such learning is quite broad: beyond participation in clinics or externships, for example, CLS has approved the creation of student-initiated reading groups. You could define these groups as niche, flexible learning seminars. They are geared toward those who are passionate about a legal problem but may not have found the appropriate venue to study and formally discuss alternatives. If you thought it difficult to discern what blackletter law says about an issue, try throwing down the gauntlet to ask what a more favorable outcome might be in a given area of law. It’s an analytical exercise for both participating students and professors. Any “lecturing” professors can abandon the traditional cold call, case method in favor of informality and creativity. More often than not, professors involved can simply stand on the same footing as students in the course of dialogue, reinforcing the idea that there is no real right answer but rather a wealth of possible visions.
From students to professors, we like the promise. This year alone, these groups span a variety of issues, from the Civil Rights Act to Citizenship to Sexual Assault Policy and Law.
What I find most promising about these groups, though, is the takeaway: when dealing with complex legal issues, we should endeavor to go beyond what the law is and consider or suppose what the law could be. Perhaps a traditional legal education concerned itself less with supposition or normative imagining. But can we not envision a legal education which resolves to bestow additional skills, anticipating and even ensuring that we will change law—when need be—and not simply leave it untested?
Could it endow us with the ability to formulate, imagine, or dream of new intentions? Do we not want to pursue that sort of education?
I’m inclined to think so. Having chosen this goal-oriented profession, I believe that it is our nature and life’s blood to pursue what is “better” when possible, be it an individual, collective, or societal aim. Upon reflection, a legal education—while a valuable and effective experience for most—could be better designed to aid us in that endeavor. And alongside the institution itself, we must resolve to make it so.
Yes, we. Even you, checked-out, last semester 3Ls. If you look just about anywhere, you will see a whole slew of things that could stand to be better—possibly in yourself, but definitely in your community and profession. You should also notice that stakeholders on all sides have to be on board to ensure change happens. Individual resolutions rely on a single person for achievement; it is not so with institutional change. At this point, you’ve invested enough in this education to try to walk away with all the necessary tools in your belt to do more than just say what the law is.
This January, any amount of reflection brings into sharp relief the necessity of resolution-making. A lot has occurred in the past year. 2014 brought an onslaught of issues that hit home, and hit hard. And while we law students were up to the task to deal with them, we cannot accept that we are at “the resulting state.” Rather, we must continue to contemplate our intentions in order to excise the bad and nurture the good.