Why All Lawyers Should Care About Education
As students of all ages return to schools and campuses across the country this fall, we are once again reminded of the many doors in life that are only opened through education.
Despite growing up in a family of little means, I was fortunate to be raised in a household that valued the importance of education and knew that that was the pathway to improve socioeconomic status in life. By high school, I already envisioned becoming a lawyer and fulfilled that goal when I graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. Quite simply, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the educational opportunities afforded me.
As many of you already know, prior to becoming NYSBA president I spent nine years on the Board of Regents, including serving as vice chancellor and as acting chancellor. Education is near and dear to my heart. Education is vitally important to maintaining strong and vibrant communities. A strong economy is dependent on good schools at all levels. It lays the groundwork for healthy families, vibrant neighborhoods and thriving communities.
Unfortunately, many people tend to take education for granted. For many others like me, education provided the only equitable way to level the playing field. I never took it for granted. For those who slip through the cracks and never get a sound education, the impact is lifelong, and far greater on society and us, as lawyers, than you may realize.
The downfall is an all-too-familiar script of schoolchildren, especially at-risk youth, going from the classroom to the juvenile and criminal justice systems, often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Our members working in various aspects of the criminal justice system or in the family courts, including judges, see this firsthand every day.
NYSBA addressed this issue through its Task Force on the School to Prison Pipeline in 2019 that issued a report adopted by the House of Delegates. The task force reviewed studies showing that students who are excluded from school face adverse consequences, including lower academic achievement, more truancy, higher dropout rates, and increased involvement with the juvenile justice system.
Suspensions and expulsions and their adverse impacts are experienced more frequently by students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students. Studies further demonstrate that students who are suspended are three times more likely to have contact with the judicial system and two times more likely to drop out of school than are students who have never been suspended from school. The stark consequences do not end there, as this often leads to a downward spiral that prevents access to other opportunities in life such as safe and decent housing, healthcare, and employment.
Among the task force’s recommendations were to urge lawmakers to financially support restorative justice practices in lieu of suspensions to help alleviate the school-to-prison pipeline. This not only benefits at risk students but results in a significant cost savings to taxpayers and society.
The cost of incarceration is staggering. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, New York counties spent more than $225 to incarcerate a single person for a single night, or more than $82,000 per year in 2019. These numbers are considerably higher in New York City and have only gone up since the pandemic began. According to the New York City comptroller in a report issued earlier this year, the New York City Department of Corrections spent a whopping $447,337 per inmate in the 2020 fiscal year, a third more than the previous year and more than double what was spent in 2015.
That amount of money could pay for an education at a prestigious university, and certainly that funding could be better spent improving our education system statewide – a system studies have shown to be the most segregated in the country. Instead, that money is spent on a seemingly never-ending school-to-prison pipeline. Unfortunately, the inequities in the education system at the state and federal level do not end there.
Disparities in accessing an education are also prevalent in rural areas. As the use of online education and virtual learning skyrocketed during the pandemic, many people in rural areas were left behind. NYSBA has urged national, state, and local lawmakers to fund broadband access for rural communities. This was outlined in NYSBA’s groundbreaking Task Force on Rural Justice report that was adopted by the House of Delegates in 2020.
That same report also highlighted the role law schools can play in addressing the lawyer shortage in rural areas through clinics, internships, pro bono work and support of law students interested in rural practice.
Education was also at the forefront of a recent recommendation made by NYSBA’s Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform in its comprehensive report adopted by the House of Delegates in June. The task force, which I had the privilege of co-chairing along with Taa Grays, recommended enhancing police hiring practices by requiring at least an associate’s college degree or its equivalent. This practice is already in place for all applicants seeking to become New York City police officers.
Nationally, most police departments do not require more than a high school diploma. In some parts of New York, you can become a police officer with only 700 hours of training as set by the Municipal Police Training Council. In other words, you need more training to become a cosmetologist and a massage therapist (1,000 hours) in New York than you do to become a police officer.
Police officers with two- and four-year degrees have proven to have fewer constitutional violations and disciplinary actions filed against them. As police officers increasingly encounter individuals with mental health issues, the task force also discovered that police officers with a college education were better able to assist them than their non-college-educated colleagues. And studies show that officers with four-year degrees use significantly less physical force during encounters.
The legal profession’s interest in higher education certainly doesn’t end there. Of particular note, the Law School Admission Council reports that the number of applications to U.S. law schools has increased by 28% from last year – reaching its highest level since 2011.
NYSBA’s Task Force on the New York Bar Examination recommends that the state withdraw from the Uniform Bar Exam and develop its own bar admissions test to ensure that attorneys have a better understanding of state law before being admitted to practice. As such, law schools would increase their emphasis on teaching New York law.
NYSBA is calling on the New York Court of Appeals to appoint a working group that would, in conjunction with the Board of Law Examiners, develop a New York Bar Examination that is fair and equitable and encourages the study of New York law. The task force’s report, approved by the House of Delegates in June, also requests consideration of two alternative means to admission: a pathway through concentrated study of New York law while in law school and a pathway through supervised practice of law in New York combined with law school achievements.
It is important to remember as we get back to educating our citizens this fall that the fate of our education system should matter to everyone, and the dire consequences of a failing system impact us all, including our members on the front lines who deal with the fallout every day. The New York State Bar Association will continue to advocate for an educated and informed legal community and society in general. It is the very foundation of our careers and of the legacy we will leave future generations.