A few weeks ago, while at the University of Virginia’s law school for a conference, I spent time looking for accounts of my grandfather, Everett Dean Gerwig, who was a graduate.
He had weathered World War II in the South Pacific and, supported by the GI Bill, moved his young family to Charlottesville, Virginia, with hopes of a successful legal career.
I was delighted to find old yearbooks and a lovely photo of my grandfather studying in the library, and when I visited the building where he attended classes, an exhortation carved over the entrance thoroughly moved me: “That those alone may be servants of the law who labor with learning, courage, and devotion to preserve liberty and promote justice.” (This is also featured at the current law school building.)
I thought about what it would have been like to matriculate in 1946. My grandfather’s entering class, the first after the war’s end, more than quadrupled the law school’s enrollment. There were few female students, and students of color were not permitted to enroll until 1950. Life must have been extraordinarily confusing as Americans readjusted to postwar life. The world needed lawyers — lawyers to argue for the end of Jim Crow laws the veterans returned to face, to extend voting rights protection to all, to argue for pay equality for women remaining in the workforce and for human rights both foreign and domestic.
I certainly know that many lawyers haven’t lived up to their professional obligations. But I’m encouraged by trends we are seeing showing law student applications up for the second year in a row — and at the highest numbers since the economic crash in 2008, when all but elite law schools saw applications drop an average of 50%.
As with students entering law school in 1946, current students see conflict in the news cycle, threats to the rule of law and evidence that the justice many receive depends on how much justice they can afford. Most first year law students are too young to remember a life before 9/11 (or a time when our country was not at war).
We all have opinions about current events, but I submit that those opinions should be informed by careful reading and the perspective of history. We need young lawyers to help us think critically and creatively about the world’s problems, and that is exactly what law school trains them to do.
I don’t know whether Dean Gerwig went to law school seeking to protect the rule of law in those years following the horrors of the Holocaust and the war’s destruction. I can imagine he would be puzzled and dismayed by the news in 2019 — not to mention the violent demonstrations and Nazi chants which led to bloodshed in the Charlottesville streets two years ago.
I do know that his graduation from law school made it much easier for me to make the same career choice 50 years later. And while some of the lawyers of his generation used the law as a shield for the status quo, others in those postwar graduating classes helped bend the arc of history toward justice.
The legal profession has earned much of its bad reputation, and women and people of color remain underrepresented in halls (and benches) of power. But the rigors of law school equip us — at our best —to help defend democracy and protect the vulnerable. May all those entering first year classes this fall work their hardest to “preserve liberty and promote justice.” Our country needs them.
Sarah Gerwig is a law professor and word enthusiast raising her two sons in Macon.