President’s Message: Reflecting on How Law Schools Can Make a Difference

By AALS President Erwin Chemerinsky, dean,  University of California, Berkeley School of Law

AALS President Erwin Chemerinsky

Every AALS President has the wonderful opportunity to pick a theme for the coming year and the annual conference. My theme for 2022, and the January 2023 conference in San Diego, is how law schools can make a difference. As a new school year begins, at a time when so many are understandably frightened by events in the United States and the world, I urge my fellow deans and faculty members to think about what we can do to make a difference.

There are countless ways – through our scholarship, our teaching, our advocacy, our programs – where, individually and collectively, we can have a real impact. One important way is through pro bono work by students and faculty. Law schools can play a key role in this regard by finding and organizing pro bono projects for students and faculty.

There is an enormous problem with access to justice in the United States and pro bono efforts can make a significant difference in providing representation. The legal profession, of which we are a part, has the obligation to find solutions. Law schools as educators also must step up by teaching about the justice gap, its causes and consequences, and by instilling an ethic of responsibility in our students and faculty. Experience shows that students who begin doing pro bono work in law school are likely to continue to do so throughout their careers.

In July, the Executive Committee of AALS was pleased to approve a request from the newly renamed Section on Pro Bono & Access to Justice (formerly the Section on Pro Bono & Public Service Opportunities) to create a Pro Bono Honor Roll to acknowledge and highlight the exceptional work of individuals engaging in, expanding, and/or supporting their law school community in providing pro bono legal services. Every year, each law school will be able to select one faculty member, one student, and one staff member for this recognition. The Section on Pro Bono & Access to Justice will provide details about how each law school can participate in this Honor Roll.

No matter where your law school is located, whether urban or rural, large or small, there are always opportunities locally and/or remotely to help your students connect with pro bono opportunities. Alternative Spring Breaks doing pro bono are very popular with law students and can give them a concentrated experience working with legal services organizations, public defenders, immigration advocates, and others.

At the same time that we look at what law schools can do, the AALS Executive Committee has focused on what AALS can do. In May 2021, AALS held a major conference on democracy and the rule of law. In spring and summer 2023, AALS will hold another conference on this topic and also a conference on how law schools can pursue diversity after the US Supreme Court’s likely decisions in the affirmative action cases to be heard this fall.

We also have held familiar programs and created new ones to be of assistance to our member schools. In May, there was the Conference on Clinical Legal Education, and in June, an in-person Workshop for New Law School Teachers that was very well attended. In July, over Zoom, AALS held its first program on pedagogy for lecturers and part-time faculty at law schools. Over 250 attended what we expect will be a regular event. Also, in the coming year, we will be creating programs, again over Zoom, for emeriti faculty. And again this fall, we will have three Faculty Focus programs, held via Zoom, some aimed at more junior faculty and some for more experienced faculty, though all instructors are welcome to attend every program.

As I mentioned, the theme for our January conference in San Diego – our first in-person Annual Meeting in three years – will be how law schools can make a difference. I know that there will be many exciting programs and I so look forward to us being together.

At a time when many are discouraged by events in the United States and across the world, I have thought a lot about what to say to my students and colleagues. The simple reality is that we have two choices: we give up or we fight harder. That means we really have only one choice, to fight harder and better than we ever have to advance freedom and equality. Law schools have a crucial role to play, and we truly can make a difference.