Howard University professor Patricia Worthy has her finger on the pulse of some of today’s students bound for law school.
Ms. Worthy, the university’s associate dean for academic affairs, sifts through potential students’ admissions forms, which include essays on why they want to study law. The answers speak volumes of their intentions, she says.
Today’s Howard law students, and those attending other District universities, still possess the raw idealism of their predecessors, and their numbers are growing.
As the economy continues to struggle, interest in law schools keeps climbing. The Newtown, Pa.-based Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) reports that 17 percent more students submitted applications to American Bar Association-accredited law schools in fall 2002 than the previous year.
The upward swing, reflected at several local law schools, is expected to keep climbing this year, the LSAC predicts. In a struggling economy, many students see the legal profession as a sure thing, local law educators say.
But economics is hardly the main motivating factor.
Ms. Worthy says most Howard students take up law to help right some of the social injustices they’ve seen or read about during their young lives.
The university may call the District home, but government doesn’t factor into the students’ thinking as much as at other District law schools, she says.
Instead, Howard’s legacy of fighting injustice is a prime draw. Some graduates will “go back into their communities and run for office,” says Ms. Worthy, who reports her university’s law school admissions are up about 40 percent in recent months.
That isn’t to say some students aren’t following the major national cases. The hotly contested 2000 presidential election is reflected in more than a few personal statements, as are cases involving affirmative action decisions and the Patriot Act.
Dean Michael K. Young of the George Washington University Law School says today’s law students “are as idealistic and visionary as they’ve always been.” What’s different, he says, is that they see how they can help deal with problems like racism and poverty through litigation.
As the students see it, “the world is being transformed in part by information and technology and the law … they want to play a role in that,” he says.
They also see perceived intrusions on civil rights and want to make sure the public is protected, he says, adding that George Washington’s law school has seen a “dramatic” rise in its law applications.
The university’s address is partly responsible for the upswing in interest.
“When I went to law school, states mattered,” he says. Today, when we debate criminal law, health care or educational issues, it’s being debated at the national level.
“The [2000 presidential] election wasn’t decided in Florida but down the street,” he says, referring to the Supreme Court.
Politics might get most of the attention around the District, but area lawyers-to-be are heavily focused on intellectual property law, which concerns the protection of patents, trademarks and original materials from misuse or theft. The rise of the Internet, which gives people access to endless content, has brought greater attention to the field.
“They’re lining up the block,” for such courses, Mr. Young says. Interest also is high regarding civil rights laws and corporate securities.
Ms. Worthy says otherin-demand courses at Howard feature computer, telecommunication and entertainment law.
A less technically heavy area that has been emerging over the last two decades is environmental law, says Alfred P. Carlton Jr., president of the Chicago-based American Bar Association.
Good, old-fashioned arguments also are still in vogue.
“We’ve seen a real substantial increase in alternative dispute resolution mediation … as opposed to litigation,” Mr. Carlton adds.
No matter the focus, many students choose law for the intellectual challenge.
Daniel D. Polsby, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law at George Mason University, says law school can be an extension of a student’s liberal arts training.
“You’re thinking in fundamental but practical ways about how government works and how people can live together,” Mr. Polsby says.
One such student is George Washington’s Joshua Konecni, 21, who saw law school as a way to practically apply the lessons learned as a history and philosophy student in undergraduate school.
“For me, it was sort of that next step up on the intellectual challenge,” he says.
The first year of law school proved to be a whole new way of thinking, he says. “It’s learning how to think about things a different way, learning how to view situations from different angles.”
His fellow students often take another view of law school. Some are eager to pursue the more lucrative law firm life. Others want to change the laws through the legal system, he says, dropping the name of professor John Banzhaf, an active player in lawsuits against the tobacco industry.
Mr. Konecni sees himself as a lawyer who would more strictly interpret the Constitution as part of his duties, but his peers often espouse more progressive goals.
“I’m a believer that courts should not be legislating,” he says. “Part of my motivation is getting back to a situation where the original understanding of the Constitution is respected and followed.”
High-profile legal cases may draw newspaper readers and viewers into the legal world, but Mr. Konecni says it’s more fodder for discussion than a motivating factor for his peers.
Kadian Ferguson, a fellow second-year GW law student, says many of her colleagues opt for corporate and tax law specialties to insulate themselves from difficult economic times. Those two specialties “will always be there,” Ms. Ferguson says.
Students can prepare for law school in a number of ways, Mr. Polsby says.
“We love it if people have some background in the working world. That tends to ground people and mature them,” Mr. Polsby says.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time now,” he continues, “some of my strongest students have had the oddest majors.”
Discipline might be the main word that applies to law school students.
“This is not like medical school,” he says, “where you have to memorize cycles or perform feats of sheer memory … there’s a lot of hard, confusing stuff you have to sort out and disentangle.”
No matter the specialty, Mr. Young marvels at the depth and quality of the average law student today.
“They’re smart, savvy and ambitious in all the right ways. They’re irritating, just as they’re supposed to be,” Mr. Young says.