The Power of Law
On the very day in late August when Brooklyn Law School welcomed 393 new J.D. and LL.M. students, Americans were enthralled by an extraordinary event: the first continent-wide solar eclipse since 1776 that was visible only from the United States. That afternoon as people across the country and in our Law School courtyard gazed upward through their safety glasses and downward at their pinhole cameras, it was as if nature itself was conspiring to bring the nation together—if only for a few hours. Our shared sense of unity and wonder, while fleeting, was a welcome respite from the tumultuous events that continue to roil this country. As of this writing, Floridians, some of them graduates of our Law School, are cleaning up from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, Texas continues to recover from the horrific floods brought by Hurricane Harvey, while we begin to learn of the damaging impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and the devastating major earthquakes in Mexico. Meanwhile, white supremacists and neo-Nazis march in cities like Charlottesville and Boston, North Korea menaces its neighbors and the United States with threats and missile launches, immigrants protected under the DACA policy fear they may be deported from the only country most have known, and the rights of transgender individuals to serve our nation in the military are threatened.
What do all these events have to do with new law students? Everything.
Our new students—371 studying for their J.D.s and 22 in the LL.M. program—come to us from 33 states, the District of Columbia, and 20 countries spanning five continents with optimism and a passion to use the power of law to make a positive difference across a range of fields. As I met each of them in their first days of law school, many were concerned about the direction of the country and the world, but were eager to dive headfirst into their studies and get involved in all the practical learning opportunities the Law School offers. They have arrived at our great institution at a critical moment in our history. We need good lawyers more than ever before. As a law school uniquely and historically in the forefront of educating people from all walks of life to effectively serve both the public and private roles of lawyers in ever new and better ways, our mission is to prepare our students for what they need to know, and need to know how to do, in a world of law transforming rapidly before our eyes because of technology, economics, and increasingly the global nature of law. Do we believe lawyers matter? Well, we are doing our best to straighten that question mark into an exclamation point.
All our students and graduates are called upon to be front and center in the grand civics lesson all Americans have been called to attend this year. This is because we face many of the essential questions our nation’s founders grappled with: How do we elect? How do we govern? How do we talk to each other? How do we decide what we mean by “We the People,” and whether we mean to include immigrants or not? As to lawful assembly and free speech, we already have had and will continue to have lively debates at our school this year, and we will learn a lot about “fighting words” and “incitement” among many legal topics arising from the cascading swirl of upsetting acts of racial and religious intolerance at home and abroad. Relevant case law on these important constitutional issues is abundant and will be thoroughly discussed. However, the very important legal conversation about the constitutional free speech underpinnings of protest, dissent and holding government accountable must not excuse us or distract us from expressing clearly and rejecting the immorality of prejudice, bigotry, and inequality. Indeed, it is fundamentally wrong if one can speak out and has a voice that can be heard, to be silent.
Right now, in Texas and Florida, lawyers are performing pro bono work to help people recover from the hurricane, providing legal advice and assistance on issues related to insurance claims, real estate, employment, health care, and immigration. Many lawyers are donating their services, including out-of-staters who are permitted by the Texas Supreme Court’s order to perform legal work for Harvey victims for six months, proof positive that lawyers and even state bar licensing authorities have hearts. Meanwhile, government attorneys in both states are busy informing storm victims of their rights and protecting them from being ripped off and preyed upon by price gougers and dishonest contractors.
Back in Brooklyn we are proud of the many examples of law in action we see daily. For example, the Law School is partnering with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York to help assist immigrants in need of legal advice and assistance. Led by Professors Maryellen Fullerton and Stacy Caplow, this is a remarkable project because it involves the volunteer efforts of faculty, students, alumni, and staff—and our liaison at Catholic Charities just happens to be Maryann Tharappel ’11, the organization’s first-ever Director of Special Projects for Immigrants and Refugees, who is profiled in this issue. In late September, our volunteers traveled to Putnam County to take part in a legal clinic where they conducted screenings, gathered information, and assisted with DACA renewals. We will continue to support these clinics while also working on projects related to family preparedness and naturalization assistance with Catholic Migration Services in Brooklyn, where Rev. Patrick Keating ’17 serves as chief executive officer.
We all are demonstrating how critically important lawyers are to the social order that is the bedrock of our growth and prosperity and to the principles of justice, equality, and fairness that are integral to the very fabric of this law school since its founding 116 years ago. There has been precious little understanding of and appreciation for the foundational laws of our land and the role lawyers play in bringing to fruition all the benefits of our constitutional guarantees that are at the core of our democratic way of life. Law schools everywhere must seize this opportunity to trumpet the good news that just as lawyers were instrumental in our nation’s beginnings, they are essential today to the defense of our rights, the pursuit of justice, and the preservation of our Republic.
The recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America,” featured the powerful words of civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark: “I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than affirm.” Her uncompromising message goes the heart of what we do and who we are at Brooklyn Law School. We must work to honor and renew what makes our school so distinctive and indispensable, do our part to clear paths and chart legal courses for a just, democratic society to endure in a complex and dangerous world, and celebrate and protect our diverse and global community.
Joseph Crea Dean and President