*This piece was originally posted on the Brennan Center for Justice's blog.
by Andrew Cohen, Fellow, Brennan Center for Justice
There used to be an old saying about legal education in America: Law school does not prepare you to take the bar exam and the bar exam does not prepare you to be a lawyer. I do not know if that is still true or not, although I suspect it is. It sure was 25 years ago when I graduated from law school, took the bar exam and then began practice as a baby lawyer in Denver.
Next week I will be in my beloved Boston—what, no World Series game at Fenway?—to speak to law school students, professors and alumni and I cannot help thinking that there is one critical course that is missing from the curriculum at even the most forward-thinking law schools across the country. Too many of those schools teach students about what they wish the law to be rather than what the law really is.
First-year students take criminal law and criminal procedure and they learn about mens rea and the Model Penal Code. What’s missing from law school curricula, however, is a required course that ought to be titled: “Criminal Injustice.” The course would track the countless ways in which our nation’s justice systems fail to provide justice to countless Americans. Only such a class would adequately prepare new lawyers—whether they end up being prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges or not—for the reality of what is happening in the nation’s courtrooms, prisons, jails and police stations.
The imaginary syllabus I have conjured almost writes itself. It would begin with a section on police training, recruitment and unions so that students could better understand why police reform is so hard to achieve. We would also address in this section the culture of prisons and how they are so often staffed with overworked and underpaid men and women, to understand why our prisons are a national disgrace. The culture of silence, of a lack of accountability and transparency, helps explain why there are so many excessive force cases and wrongful convictions and documented instances of abuse and neglect in confinement.