The role of law in society is insufficiently understood or appreciated. From students to the general public to university presidents and provosts to leaders of major foundations, law is often seen too narrowly as being only a system of dispute resolution rather than in its broader role of creating the ecosystem for human flourishing. Law in this sense is like the air we breathe—we only notice it when it’s not there. But we can no more live healthy lives without the rule of law in this world than we can without air. And waiting to appreciate its vital role until we are choking and gasping is not a good strategy.
We need to make the case now for why law matters and for the academy’s role in advancing respect for and understanding of the rule of law. In a 1974 article, John Cribbet, then dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, called this the “silent raison d’etre of legal education and the lasting claim for public and private support of the law schools.” Making our case is both urgent and important—especially in the current environment where many aspects of law are troubled and vivid: race-based violence and racial inequity in our criminal justice system; growing access to justice gaps as economic inequality widens; honest businesses struggling to compete in countries that do not value law and justice; deepening ethnic and religious conflicts and resulting migration surges; devastating gun violence expanding in number and scope.
Too often the public views law as a shield that protects the rich or as a sword that cuts down the poor. We must acknowledge these views while also knowing—and helping others to understand—that adherence to, not rejection of, the rule of law will help resolve these conflicts and more.
Making our case can also make a difference—to us, to our profession, to our communities and to the world. Perhaps it can help us to understand law in new ways and to appreciate again some of its historic strengths applied to new contexts—for instance, law can be an important stabilizing force in a “disruptive” age. A more intentional focus on why law matters can also help us to re-energize our teaching, research, and service, and inspire a new generation of students to dedicate their lives to the law.