No one, not even the mightiest of institutions, is immune to the changes wrought by globalization, digitalization and a weakened economy. Still, I was surprised to learn recently that law schools have been particularly hard hit — so much so that they have begun to rethink the very nature of legal education and its relationship to the commonweal.
The American law school has long been a stable conduit of upward mobility, especially for the sons and daughters of immigrants. But these days, a law degree, whose cost is prohibitive, is no longer a guarantee of financial security. As a result, the keepers of the American bar must figure out how to make a career in the law both possible and rewarding for future generations.
This is hardly the first time that those concerned with the future of the legal establishment have contemplated an overhaul of the curriculum. But it may well be the very first time that those who argue for change are eager to extend the franchise rather than delimit it. When, early in the 20th century, the nation’s legal gatekeepers trained their sights on the law school, they were motivated more by keeping out rather than welcoming in prospective applicants, a steadily growing number of whom happened to be Jewish.
Back then, hardly anyone within the upper reaches of the American legal establishment had a good word to say about lawyers from Jewish backgrounds: Their English, it seemed, wasn’t up to snuff, their grasp of America’s heritage was faulty and, worse still, they reportedly commercialized the law, rendering it a business rather than a form of stewardship. But don’t take it from me. Let’s read what some of America’s legal brahmins of the 20th century thought about those whose ambition apparently did not quite match up with their pedigree. Their perspective chills the soul, while also reminding us of how far we’ve come.
Consider, for example, the observations of Charles A. Boston, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York County Lawyers Association. Among the “forces making for the current deterioration of the bar,” he publicly declared in 1908, was the “ambitious and intellectual capacity of Oriental immigrants, with no apparent conception of English or Teutonic ideals.” He meant the Jews, of course, who were often labeled Oriental or Asiatic as opposed, say, to those whose feet appeared to be more firmly planted in Western or Occidental civilization.