Negotiating Demands for Justice: Public Interest Law as a Problem Solving Dialogue
In the Public Interest, Vol. 15, pp. 1-48, 1996-1997
48 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2010
Date Written: February 10, 2010
Act 1, Scene 1: (A first-year law student enters the law professor’s office, fuming.) First-Year Law Student: Hey, Prof, am I right that you’re behind the new public interest law course?
Law Professor: Well, yes. I, among others, actively lobbied to find a place for it in the law school curriculum and especially supported it as a mandatory course in the first year of legal study.
First-Year Law Student: Excuse me, but where do you get off making this a required course in the first year?! In the name of correcting inequitable distributions of legal power, you are exploiting your own lopsided power advantage to force me to learn how to volunteer?! Did you ever think of asking my opinion on this? Your paternalism reeks. … Act 1, Scene 2: (The law professor engages in an aside, entreating the reading audience to understand the method behind the madness.)
Have you placed any marks on this dialogue so far? Have you scratched out any words or rewritten any of the sentences? You were supposed to. You see, it represents an effort to create a collaborative, open-ended syllabus for my public interest law course. Rather than impose my professorial voice as the final word on the semester’s topics for class discussion, required texts, assigned readings and so on, I thought it would be more in keeping with the public interest theme to invite the students to share their ideas, suggestions, and concerns. Since it would have required a prohibitive time commitment to interview all ninety of them individually, I drafted this imaginary dialogue to give them an opportunity to participate in the construction of the course.
I handed out the imaginary dialogue on the first day of class and asked the students to interlineate their reactions in the margins and to comment at length on the backside of the pages. I then placed the students in small groups and had them exchange papers outside of class to explore the spectrum of opinions. Reconvened as an entire class, we used the marked-up dialogues to formulate a working definition of public interest law and to share our expectations for the course. Finally, we negotiated the course syllabus, the alternative field projects, the selection of texts, the format for class discussion, and alternative methods for testing and grading.
Indeed, I wanted the students to understand public interest law as a richly textured narrative taken from real life stories – beginning with their own. After all, how could they learn to relate to disadvantaged people if they couldn’t put into words their own subordination?
Keywords: Legal education, public interest law, negotiation, role-playing
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation