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Our task in the academy is to discover, and to understand, what it is that gives "commonness" to our common law.

Reflections on a Career Teaching the Law

• Stanley D. Henderson

I didn't intend to grow older and face retirement. It has all happened by accident. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me, only to others.

I met my wife Dee many years ago in a college Speech class. Based on that encounter, she first thought I was destined to be a preacher. That was not in the cards, but I eventually became a teacher. That has proved to be a splendid deal—it gave me a “captive audience,” there were no rules against preaching, and, at hour’s end, I did not have to endure the hazards of passing a collection plate.

Looking back, I can fairly say, “Oh, my how things have changed since I arrived here in 1970.” First and foremost, there is this spacious and elegant facility. Once again, our alums reaffirmed their ties to this school in grand style, and we thank you for that. We thank you a lot. Worn and weary old Clark Hall, and the Spartan, “no-name” quarters that were the original North Grounds, are—to borrow from Simon & Garfunkel—“but a dream to me now.”

Second, there is the make-up of the student body, and the faculty. When I left law school in 1961, there was at best a sprinkling of women and minorities in the nation’s professional schools, including the top law schools. In my first Contracts class at Virginia (John Jeffries’s class), 120 students in all, there were two black men and eight women, one a black.

To be sure, the constraining norms of our nation’s earlier times were gradually eroded. Led by Al Turnbull (and faculty like Charlie Whitebread on the Admissions Committee), we worked very hard to make law study here a more attractive option for those who had found it unattractive. Our classes have for some time now looked more and more like the people who live in America. Yet the struggle to build a stable consensus for diversity continues. This school, going back to Dean Ribble’s fight against “massive resistance” in the 1950s, has demonstrated that it will stand on the right side of any debate over whether lawyers ought to reflect the larger society which they, individually and collectively, affect in so many important ways.

Third, the resident faculty has more than doubled in size since 1970, and equally expanded its intellectual horizons. We are more broadly-gauged now, and tilted toward the related disciplines of the Social Sciences. At the moment, Legal History appears to be the “hot” subject, and we have assembled a wonderful band of scholars and teachers led by Ted White and Barry Cushman.

The young in our ranks indeed have sparkling credentials; many have multiple degrees from elite schools. It is clear that I could not get a teaching job here now. But you are to find no cover in that statement, for some of you would not today be admitted as 1Ls either! So we share another common bond—our status as historical accidents.

Fourth, with a larger and more broadly gauged faculty has come ever-increasing diversity in our academic program, including our Graduate Programs. Our current Course Offering Directory runs nearly 100 pages. And the courses and seminars given each year well exceed that number. Further, a number of the offerings, judged by their titles, have strayed from the path you knew—e.g., “Schools, Race, and Money,” one of our most successful courses. A particular manifestation of our richer, cafeteria-style curriculum is the emergence of an assortment of ancillary entities and programs, as to which the Community Legal Assistance and Clinical Programs lead the pack.

Another striking change over the years has been the steady growth of our administrative structure and staff. Lots of nonteaching people now work here, as is the case at the other major schools. The telephone directory indicates we currently have some 30 offices or divisions within the Law School. We are blessed to have this talented and caring support staff; they perform splendidly, often with little recognition and for modest pay. Without such people as Elaine Hadden, Dave Ibbeken, Beverly Harmon, and Steve Hopson, we faculty would not have a clue as to how to keep this place running.

Many of these operations are devoted to the needs of students (e.g., the Student Affairs office and the Placement & Career Services operation). Unlike earlier times, when only minds and character got much of our attention, today we commit much time and energy to ensuring contented campers.

Lastly, I have witnessed a vast expansion of student organizations, including the student-run law journals, which now number nearly a half-dozen. So it is not at all difficult for students to find things to do other than prepare for Contracts or Labor Law.

In a word, the signs of inflation are everywhere. But there is more. Recall the famous admonition to entering law students that circulated in the 1970s, and earlier: “Look to your left. Look to your right. Look at yourself. One of you won’t be here next year.” Now, as my coauthor Bernie Meltzer of Chicago reminds us, the 1Ls at the top schools are regularly told: “Look to your left. Look to your right. Look at yourself. One of you three won’t graduate with a B+ average.”

Still, it must be said that the things that count—the people and the process, and thus the product—have not changed much at all in my time here. That is not surprising, for whatever the field or subdivision of our law, the same issues keep reappearing with each decade.

This was a very good national law school when I arrived. It has only gotten better over the years. I have seen nothing but a succession of Golden Ages. That is so because, as we approach our 200th year, our shared aspirations for this school remain intact, as does our commitment to our traditions.

We law teachers, like all others who collect a paycheck at month’s end, define ourselves by our work. And pride has much to do with the definition we seek. We, like you, know the lifelong value of a rigorous legal education.

So the fundamentals of providing opportunities for learning are unchanged. Professional training continues to get top billing, despite the greater role accorded the interdependent disciplines.

We educate law students through cases, and every case tells a story of people and their problems. And every class has a story of its own. It must be remembered that the ideas making up our common law are “constructed” ideas. The problem, as you know, is that they are also undergoing constant “reconstruction.” So we who “do law” live with much ambiguity and uncertainty. Our task in the Academy is to discover, and to understand, what it is that gives “commonness” to our common law.

That is why the inquiring element—the putting of hard questions—is therefore central to the enterprise. It is, after all, the “hard” cases that increase our confidence in identifying the “easy” cases.

As concerns today’s faculty, then, while the names change, the traditions of excellence, of passion, of commitment, continue. For every Hardy Dillard, Dan Meador, and Tom Bergin, there is a Bob Scott, a Ken Abraham, a Lillian BeVier, a George Rutherglen, and a Michael Klarman—and now moving to center stage, a Barry Cushman, a John Harrison, and a Jim Ryan, and tomorrow a Rosa Brooks and a Clarisa Long. For every Monrad Paulson and Emerson Spies, there is a Dick Merrill—and now a John Jeffries.

The question our alums ask me most often is: “What are the students like these days? Is life in the classroom different?”

First, entering students today are surely better prepared for law study. That is so, I believe, because undergraduate education has gotten increasingly better. And because admission is now so competitive, those who enter have better credentials, more impressive records. Also, in the last decade at least, more and more 1Ls have been out in the world two, three, perhaps five or more years, before undertaking law study. So they return to formal education with some knowledge of life and work, and many have been to interesting places across the globe and done challenging and significant things.

Does this mean they are smarter than the students I had 10, 20, or 30 years ago? No, I cannot tell that from class participation or reading exams. The students here have always been intellectually gifted. I have never had a year where I did not face smart, talented, and winning people.

Does having better-prepared entering students mean classroom discussion is livelier, more searching or far reaching? It does not, for reasons you well understand. The student culture you knew—especially in the upper-classes—remains largely unchanged. That is to say, to “volunteer,” to appear too eager in class, is to risk a fall from grace with one’s classmates. A teacher must still prod, even shove occasionally.

But there is an added obstacle these days, the arrival of the laptop computer. While this innovation has facilitated law study in many important ways, it has not—for me at least—improved life in the classroom. It is simply not easy to engage those students—a fair number—who are cemented to a keyboard and screen, bent on getting onto a disk every word I say. So I must work harder at finding ways to trick, or shame them into thinking while at the same time typing. I have no reason to believe I have been successful.

Are the interests, work habits, or values of today’s students different from those of 10, 20, or 30 years ago? My answer is generally no. Each fall there arrives another group of talented young people, interested in ideas, in tracking them down and understanding them. The 1Ls, focused on surviving the first year, remain a joy to teach. They are like it is to be age 17—filled with energy and anxieties. But something happens after the first year, and they suddenly turn 40, the age of the 2Ls & 3Ls.

And 2Ls and 3Ls spend much more time and energy seeking jobs than was the case earlier. As to that, the pendulum swings and we go in cycles. There will be times when larger numbers appear aimed at public-interest work, and then comes an apparent swing toward traditional private-sector employment—a vocational focus on getting a job with a large firm in a popular large city. But of course the state of the larger economy, and thus the overall market for law-based jobs, has a lot to do with early career choices. As does the amount of student-loan debt a particular student carries.

The point to be underscored is that, whatever the time period, it is passion and commitment that bring one to law study in the first place. And that is what carries one through law school and beyond, whatever the career path.

Virginia ’s students have always understood that this school is about “beginnings”— “genesis” if you will. Something meaningful, something significant, is happening in their lives. I see it on their faces. I hear it in their voices. And we are upfront about the message: Hard work is what a lawyer does in order to make a difference, in order to find a satisfying life. Most who join our company seem to buy into the program, and they make a personal connection to this place and its people. I take your presence here this weekend to be proof of that.

You now know that we teachers spoke the truth when we told you that we could do no more than prepare you for a lifetime of self education.

We “passed on the culture” mainly by sowing seeds. But the real game—the discovery of self and a sense of purpose, of proportion—was always yours, when you sat here in rows, and when, in the years since, you have faced into the headwinds, at times fierce.

So, for most of what you do as lawyer-citizens, you must search within yourself for answers which our law stories and talk of precedents cannot provide. It is not enough to be smart and well-educated, to have left a top law school with a paper certificate.

It has been a grand journey for me. You have been patient and forgiving traveling companions. I will see you on down the trail.

Professor Henderson welcomes email from friends at:

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