How to talk to a traumatized law student

In his message to the Columbia Law School community, interim dean Robert Scott tells those “who would like support” in the wake of two recent grand jury “no-bills” that four professors have made themselves available for that purpose. The four are: Katherine Franke, Conrad Johnson, Olati Johnson, and Susan Sturm.

Who are these professors and what are they likely to say to support traumatized students? The law school’s website answers the first question.

Katherine Franke’s research centers on U.S. racial history; feminist theory; queer theory; sexual and gender rights in global contexts. Her principal areas of teaching are feminist and critical race theory; law and culture; civil rights law; critical legal thought. She is the director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

Conrad Johnson directed the law school’s fair housing clinic, which specialized in civil rights litigation. He is co-creator of the law school’s first distance-learning offering, the seminar in race-conscious remedies (such as racial quotas). The law school’s website says that he’s a nationally recognized leader in diversity in legal education.

Olatunde Johnson came to Columbia after serving with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU National Legal Department, for which she was senior consultant on racial justice. Her areas of expertise include anti-discrimination Law, equal protection law, and “public interest” law practice.

Susan Sturm is a professor of law and “social responsibility.” Her areas of expertise include employment discrimination and race and gender.

What will these leftist profs tell traumatized students about the two grand jury decisions and their implications? Let’s start with what they are highly unlikely to say.

They are highly unlikely to distinguish the Missouri case from the one in Staten Island. The ability to draw distinctions between similar facts and circumstances is probably the key to legal thinking and, indeed, to truly critical thinking in general. Drawing distinctions — not opining about social justice and social responsibility — is what most high-level practicing lawyers are paid to do.

The Missouri and Staten Island cases are distinguishable in important respects. But I’m betting that none of the four professors will point this out to concerned students.

The ability and the thirst to closely read documents and records is the other primary attribute practicing lawyers need to possess. Unfortunately, there is, so far, no public record of the Staten Island grand jury proceedings, but there is an extensive record in Missouri. Will any of the four professors encourage students to look at that record? I very much doubt it. If anything, they may refer students to the Law School’s one-sided line on the Missouri case, which it published on the law school’s “social justice initiatives” website.

But what will the professors say to assuage the concerns of students who, in the words of the interim dean, now question whether “the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality”?

Let’s try to imagine the conversation:

Student: Professor, I used to think that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process, and equality. But these two cases have me thinking that the law is a tool of oppression designed to protect white privilege.

Prof: If you had been paying attention you wouldn’t have been surprised.

Student: I know. I know. I wanted to take your course on social justice and responsibility in critical thinking about race, gender, and queer studies as applied to public interest and diversity. But it conflicted with the class on contracts. I’m sorry.

Prof: That’s okay. At Columbia, we teach that contracts are a tool of oppression designed to protect white privilege.

Student: But professor, now that my faith in the integrity of the law is so badly shaken, why should I continue to study law?

Prof: I make a great living teaching that the law is a tool of oppression designed to protect white privilege. It takes a while to learn all of the jargon, but it’s worth it. One day, all of this can be yours.

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