When US president Donald Trump signed his immigration ban on Jan. 27, law enforcement, customs officials, and airports were thrown into disarray. The executive order, which temporarily barred people from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as Syrian refugees, from entering the country, left people stranded in airports in the US and abroad. Families waited frantically for news of loved ones detained or were otherwise unaccounted for.
In this crucial time, lawyers from across the country stepped up to help. Many were immigration lawyers who work regularly on political asylum cases, but many others were not. Lawyers arrived at airports in drove over the weekend, carrying signs offering free legal assistance. They stayed there until the ACLU, representing plaintiffs affected by the order, won an emergency stay blocking parts of the executive order.
Suddenly, in the face of US president Trump’s bold—albeit hastily planned—agenda, lawyers seem heroic. And for the first time in what feels like the better part of a decade, the legal profession is being talked about as something other than a soul-and-money sucking dead-end.
Revenge of the law student
Over the past decade, law school statistics have been pretty grim. With tuition high and legal employment low, enrollment naturally began to drop. Then there were the law schools getting busted by the American Bar Association for trying to fake their employment statistics. Law professor Paul Campos, who started the blog “Inside the Law School Scam,” went so far as to accuse the entire law school system of cheating its students. Others have taken aim at the rise of for-profit law schools as particularly egregious scammers of both the federal government and students.
But this past application cycle saw an 8% rise in LSAT-takers and a stabilization in law school applications. Big law firms have also started raising salaries. Just as importantly, being a lawyer may be becoming cool again—or, if not exactly cool, truly admirable.
The Trump administration seems willing to push its projects to the ideological, and Constitutional, limit. Trump, in particular, has publicly shown little respect for the court system and the laws it represents. Indeed, after federal Judge James Robart of the Western District of Washington granted a nationwide stay on Trump’s immigration executive order, Trump’s disparaging tweets about the “so-called judge” undercut the entire judiciary: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, denied Trump’s emergency appeal to overturn the lower court’s ruling. On Feb. 8, federal judges ruled 3-0 to uphold the lower court’s stay indefinitely. (The Trump administration is currently reviewing its options, which include appealing the ruling or potentially trying to rewrite the original executive order.)
Even if law school remains a difficult and potentially costly path, the importance of good lawyers is becoming increasingly clear. “This new administration is challenging some things that we’ve taken to date as long-standing legal truths, ranging from civil rights and civil liberties to administrative regulations,” says Adrienne Davis, a law professor and the vice provost at Washington University. “So yes, we need more lawyers.”
This isn’t just an immigration issue. Altering the Affordable Care Act, for example, will have a significant effect on small businesses, so there will be a need for corporate lawyers. And Trump’s recent executive order striking fiduciary rules on Wall Street affects retirees, who may not be able to count on their financial institutions to look out for their money.
Trump’s disregard of the judiciary is incredibly troubling because, according to Davis, “the rule of law is probably one of the two or three basic precepts of democracy. There are some things you can say it would be nice to have in democracy. But the rule of law is [required].” And, just as importantly, “You cannot have the rule of law without the lawyers.”
Law school as social justice work
Not all legal work is created equal, of course. While some law students may be drawn towards social justice organizations like the ACLU, others may want to find a job opportunity that better suits their particular skills and interests. And then there’s always the pull of better-paying corporate jobs.
Erika Wilson, a law professor and the director of the civil legal assistance clinic at the University of North Carolina School of Law, notes that the Trump administration has highlighted the important work that lawyers have actually been doing all along.
“On the extreme, you have the lawyers running to the airport [as they did after the immigration ban], and especially under Trump that will be necessary,” Wilson notes. “But on a day-to-day basis, there will be a need for lawyers to do work that won’t make the New York Times. Helping a family avoid eviction or get out of substandard housing conditions. Helping a student to remain enrolled in school and not be a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline because of some zero-tolerance policy.” As Wilson points out, “These are the small acts of heroism.”
Indeed, for Kaci Bishop, a law professor and immigration law attorney who has served indigent clients for over a decade, lawyering has always been about helping people. “There is so much unmet legal need, and most of that unmet legal need is mostly people who cannot afford to pay a private attorney,” she explains. But new social justice attorneys need to be able to lose. Bishop notes that in this line of work, you need to be prepared to lose more cases than you win.
You also need to be prepared for the financial stress. Bishop acknowledges that social justice law is “intellectually challenging and requires lots of dedication to the law coupled with passion for helping people and promoting greater equity and fairness.” But it’s also not going to come with the same paycheck as a corporate job, and that will make paying off those student loans even more difficult.
So what should students considering law school do about this debt-and-low-pay problem? Bishop suggests students look “for schools that have a high return on investment—either the cost is low or there’s a good chance of getting scholarships, so that you’re not accruing so much debt. And then people are going to have to make different choices, making conscious choices—go into a firm in a few years to pay off loans, and then shift careers.” North Carolina’s Wilson makes a similar suggestion. “There is the tendency to go to the highest ranked law school,” she notes, but going to the highest ranked school is not a good value proposition if you are interested in social justice work.”
Ultimately, Trump is changing the way Americans think about activism. Marches and protests are one way of voicing dissent. But as we’ve already seen, a law degree and bar admission can prove more powerful than even the most cleverly worded sign. Trump has announced many ambitious goals for his presidency. But one of his accidental accomplishments may be to make lawyering great again.