Excerpts from Dean Blake D. Morant’s speech to the ABA House of Delegates as a member of the ABA Committee on Issues of Concern to the Legal Profession. View full video below.
Blake D. Morant, Dean, The George Washington University Law School and 2015 AALS President
I have been a lawyer now for over 35 years and a member of the ABA for most of those years. In addition to serving as dean of The George Washington University Law School since 2014, I served as president of the Association of American Law Schools in 2015 and continue to work with the AALS to support its mission. We encourage all of us to be heroic lawyers. Our charge is to educate the public on the true value of lawyers, why they are important in today’s society, and how lawyers give back to society—which is a historical part of the profession and defines us in many ways.
I’ve had opportunities to speak at venues all over the world about legal education and our profession. We have an image problem. You’ve likely known we have an image problem for years because we’ve all heard those lawyer jokes. We tend to be the target of those jokes more so than any other profession. I’ve had a bad doctor before and I was just at the dentist’s office about a week ago, and the visit was very painful. Those professions are not defined by the worst in them. Somehow, ours is, and I think that is a perception we must fight.
I am sure many of you recall the movie “Jurassic Park,” which I saw in a crowded movie theater. There is one scene in which a T-Rex chases a Jeep with four individuals in it, one of whom is a lawyer. The lawyer is the first person devoured by the T-Rex. When the T-Rex swallowed the lawyer with one gulp during the viewing I attended, the entire theater erupted in applause. I think this cultural trope reveals much about what defines our profession, and I believe it is an unfair categorization.
We have come to a point over the last seven years where we can no longer be cavalier about our image. I became dean of Wake Forest University School of Law in 2007, and the next year came the Great Recession. It was a cataclysmic moment which has changed our profession profoundly, and it caused a panoply of deconstruction about our profession and who we were.
I’m sure many of you recall the articles in The New York Times around 2011 about law schools—how tone-deaf they were about what was happening, and that they were still admitting too many students. Indeed, the Times interviewed many of us and said that there were far too many lawyers out there. And they published article after article after article.
At every single meeting I went to with alumni, they asked me about those Times articles. At my national meeting of deans, I did a canvass to find out who in the room either failed to admit the author or gave him a bad grade when he was in law school because that was his cause célèbre to us all. Between that and the recession, we have found ourselves in the midst of a changed environment.
Why is this environment so important with regard to who we are as lawyers and what this profession means?
We must concentrate on our image because too many of the best and brightest are no longer considering law school as an option. I know we could now have a very spirited debate on whether that is a bad thing, but I’d still wager it is of great concern to every single academic and it should be of great concern to us as professionals. When the best and brightest are no longer considering law school, that means our profession in the future will no longer have their talent and vision.
Having spoken all over the world, one thing I have realized is that in the global market in which we now operate, legally-trained individuals who know critical thinking skills, creatively solve problems, and understand the requirement of working with a variety of different constructs in order to come up with an arrangement that works, are exactly what this world needs.
There are many examples out there of heroic lawyers. There are so many things we can do to trumpet those particular narratives.
I grew up in Hampton, VA with a single mother who wanted me to do as many different things as I possibly could. I remember there was a lawyer in town—the only African American lawyer in the city of Hampton, named Al Smith. Al Smith was a civil rights lawyer who fought many of the battles of some of the famous jurists you heard other speakers talk about today. And he fought those battles in Hampton at his own peril. He struggled to feed his family based on what he earned. Still, he took it upon himself to mentor my Boy Scout troop and many of the schools out there. I dare say I would not be standing before you now if it weren’t for Al Smith. He is a hero.
When I became dean of Wake Forest University Law School, one of the prominent law firms in Winston-Salem adopted the Cook Elementary School—an inner-city school with the lowest scores of any school in town. After the law firm adopted the school and raised money for it, the scores went way up. The thing that really impressed me was that the firm would invite the fifth-grade class over to their offices once a month for a formal sit-down luncheon to acquaint the students with the kinds of things they should look forward to as they conducted their studies. Once, they asked me to speak at that event.
I have spoken at many venues before. I was nervous speaking in front of those fifth-graders because my task was to inspire them to study. The president stood up to introduce me and said, “I have the pleasure of introducing you to Dean Blake Morant. I don’t know what deans do, but they sound like principals. So apparently all of the teachers do what he says. The parents all support him. And whenever he asks for money, people give it to him.”
I thought to myself, “I should invite this person to my faculty meetings and alumni events!”
But I’ll never forget that speech. I told the students that studying gives you much of what you need in order to advance your life.
At the end of the day, I left an alumni event downtown and was exiting the parking garage. As I presented my ticket to the young lady who was there to take it, I heard a little voice. And this little voice said, “Hi! Hi! Remember me? You spoke to my fifth-grade class. I’m here. I’m studying. I plan to do a lot with my life.” His mother said, “I couldn’t find a babysitter tonight and I had to bring him with me. And when I brought him with me he said, ‘Momma, I got to take my book because I have to study because I want to do more with my life.’” It’s really one of the most touching things I have ever heard. These are the ways that lawyers impact lives.
I’m sure all of you have given of yourselves in your communities—not just in your practice, but outside of your practice. I could tell you about many attorneys who have mentored individuals, joined boards, run for offices, started nonprofits, and given back to their societies. Earlier, you heard a quote from Sir Thomas More. In 2003, I had the pleasure of giving the Sir Thomas More Lecture in Canterbury, England. He said the mark of a very good lawyer is an individual who not only represents his client, but who also finds ways to uplift his society.
What I implore all of you to do is to join with me and with AALS. Let’s educate the public on why legally trained individuals are more valuable to our global society than ever before.
I close with this: Earlier, you heard a mention of John Adams, the second U.S. president. If you haven’t had the chance, read David McCulloch’s biography of John Adams. In the first couple of chapters, he talks about why Adams became a lawyer. His father wanted him to become a minister. Adams, when he went to Harvard, said he wanted to be a teacher. But then, as he recalls, he was going to school when our country was really beginning its democracy. He knew with our fledging nation, with a democracy, that we were going to need individuals with the skills, the various types of training, the know-how, and the knowledge about doctrine to usher in this democracy and to make it a beacon for other countries. “Therefore, I must become a lawyer,” he decided. And lo and behold, we see, as one of our country’s founders, what he has begotten.
Join with me. You, too, are heroes. You, too, are working beyond your clients. You, too, are giving to your particular societies. Let’s educate the public that our profession is one that not only represents its clients, but also has upheld this nation. Lawyers are the future of a modern democracy. Telling our story ensures the integrity not only of our profession, but of the greatest democracy on earth. Thank you very much.
Dean Morant’s remarks begin at 30:30.