Building a Just Society: The Role of Lawyers and Legal Education in Uncertain Times

We recently celebrated two years of LSAC’s “Live with Kellye & Ken” webinars and marked the anniversary by hosting a conversation with Dean Jenny Martinez of Stanford Law School.

There’s so much going on in the world right now, from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and its resulting damage to the economy, to the protests and clashes over racial injustice and a pivotal upcoming election. We wanted to take a moment to reflect on the role of law and legal education during these unprecedented times, and Dean Martinez was able to offer a thoughtful look at why now, more than ever, is the time to start a career in law.

Dean Martinez noted that these troubled times highlight the role of lawyers as problem solvers who can resolve differences and bring us together. Current events have demonstrated the power of law in shaping the society we live in and the opportunities people have. “You really do have the potential to make a difference,” Martinez said, “and to figure out what’s not working and think about how to do it better.” It’s a challenge, but also inspiring, and aligns with the research we’ve done at LSAC: People really do want to get out there and make a difference via a law degree.

Of course, there are many pathways to a law degree, and Dean Martinez is proof of that. Her mother, who’s now retired, was a lawyer, but Dean Martinez didn’t always know she wanted to enter that field. She had many different interests in high school and college, then took some time off after college before deciding to go to law school. “For me, time off after college was productive,” she said, noting that people concerned about enrolling during COVID-19 might benefit from the same approach. “Think about why you want to study law; then, if it’s what you want, take the leap.”

For those who have taken that leap this year, Dean Martinez shared what campus life looks like during a pandemic. Stanford Law School, like many schools across the country, is employing a hybrid model with a mix of in-person and online classes. The school is also offering some classes outdoors, where the risk of spreading COVID-19 is dramatically lower. “Everyone is trying to deal with uncertainty as we navigate this,” she said. “We’re trying to be as cautious as we can and support people’s choices.”

Dean Martinez also touched on how schools are helping their students through this challenging time. Stanford has provided additional financial aid and support to students affected by COVID-19, and it is also looking for creative ways to help stressed-out students. Additionally, the school, like many others, is providing coursework that addresses the social issues we’re currently facing to help contextualize why these students are in law school and the important mission they’re aiming to serve. 

As we move past COVID-19, Dean Martinez expects that the practice of law and the way law schools operate will be forever changed. Technology will play more of a role in both arenas than it ever has, with more law firms and court systems doing business online. In a larger sense, Dean Martinez believes technology, and its role in our society, must be at the forefront of lawyers’ minds, as must our country’s need to grapple with its history of racism and the way the law has both perpetuated, and can be a part of ending, it.

As Dean Martinez noted in closing, the rule of law is the basic foundation on which people’s well-being is built. It’s a noble calling, she said, for lawyers to help create the conditions under which a society can flourish, and that sentiment dovetails with LSAC’s mission of creating a more just and prosperous world through legal education.