A University of Connecticut School of Law moot courtroom was a fitting setting last month, as consumer activist, politician and lawyer Ralph Nader sought to put the legal profession on trial.
Warrantless eavesdropping, the war in Iraq, corporate wrongdoing -- Nader is a man with quite a few bones to pick. But his chief complaint was that America's lawyers have done too little to stand in the way of government policies he labeled unconstitutional. He noted the strong reaction of Pakistan's lawyers last year when that country's leader threatened the integrity of its justice system.
"Did you see our beloved profession up in arms here?" Nader asked. "Lawyers in Pakistan were marching. Where were our lawyers?"
The UConn law school chapters of the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild brought Nader, a Winsted native, to Hartford. The event drew roughly 100 law students, as Nader urged future jurists to observe a duty beyond zealous representation of their clients. "A lawyer's role is to look out for the administration of justice," he said.
Nader placed much of the blame on America's system of legal education, which he said has spent too much time teaching substantive law and too little encouraging students to think critically about why the law is what it is.
Nader attended law school in the 1950s at Harvard -- an institution with which one law student in attendance said Nader seems to have "a love-hate relationship."
"We were told we were being taught by the best and brightest law professors the world could produce," Nader said. "And if you doubted [they were the best and brightest], you could just ask them."
But Nader said his legal education failed to address deeper issues behind substantive law. His Corporations Law professor assigned case upon case from Delaware, Nader recalled, without explaining so many companies incorporate in that state because of its corporate-friendly laws. Law students must be made aware of corporate influences on the legal system, he said.
"As power gets more and more concentrated in a few hands in our country … it puts more and more strains on the law," said Nader. "It's that tension back and forth you've got to be aware of in all your courses."
UConn Law Professor Paul Chill attended the talk and said Nader made points worth discussing in his legal ethics course. He also said law schools today are doing more to encourage students to think critically and examine social issues.
"[UConn Law has] a poverty law clinic -- a whole variety of clinics in fact," Chill said. "We have a course in corporate crime. We have courses in critical identity theory. We have all kinds of interdisciplinary seminars."
Chill said many of today's law professors "came of age in the 1960s" and have been influenced by the emergence of critical legal theory in the subsequent 40 years.
"I think these days many law school teachers are sensitive to teaching larger issues, like what are the larger policy debates, trade-offs, concerns," said Professor Patricia McCoy, who did not hear Nader's talk. "Why did we end up with a particular set of rules to begin with and what was rejected? If we had to make the decision again today, would we make it [the same]?"
NO 'DEAD STUFF'
While Nader criticized the power structure he believes led to the global financial meltdown, it is perhaps ironic that current economic woes have stoked the kind of classroom analysis he encourages.
In her Securities Regulation course, for example, McCoy said she teaches the debate over whether financial regulation should be crafted under the assumption that investors act rationally in the marketplace. This so-called "efficient-market hypothesis" has been criticized as bearing some responsibility for the real-estate bubble that led to this recession.
"It has never been more exciting to teach as a business law professor than now. What we're talking about in class is not old, dead stuff," McCoy said. "Every class is about solving today's problems."
Nader did agree that law schools today offer a richer curricula than when he was a student in the '50s. He credited law school students who "mobilized, demanded, went down South" and marched for civil rights in the '60s for shaking things up. Such activism and organization should be a lesson to students today, he said.
It has been more than 40 years since Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed," his indictment of automobile makers that helped lead to, among other things, a federal law requiring seatbelts as a standard feature in cars. In the ensuring years, Nader took up causes including environmentalism, food and drug safety and the prevention of corporate malfeasance.
More recently he is known as a long-shot presidential candidate in the last three elections. Several in the law school audience encouraged Nader to challenge Chris Dodd for his U.S. Senate seat next year, although Nader downplayed the likelihood of the possibility.
The impact of Nader's exhortations on students is unclear. One law student who attended the talk said the number of points on which he and Nader agreed surprised him.
"I agree that lawyers should have a problem with constitutional rights being trampled, for example," said third-year student Robert L. Day III.
But Day said Nader himself could have spent more time analyzing the root causes of the problems he described. "He doesn't offer any sort of solution," Day said. "[He] just goes on storming about something else."
Nader also noted the economic realities facing law students today, many of whom owe thousands and thousands of dollars in student loans. Indeed, he criticized law schools for "allowing [students] to sign one of the most one-sided contracts with" lenders.
"You're going to try to persuade me that law professors here who teach contracts couldn't have opened that can of worms years ago?" he asked.
But given debt burdens and a flagging economy, some law students said their primary focus is on securing gainful employment. "I'm a 1L. I just finished my last paper [of the semester] and I've already been told I have to look for my first job," Doug Dalena told Nader after the talk.
"Yeah, well, that's what you're told," Nader replied. "You don't have to obey that."