William A. Ingram American Inn of Court Essay Contest Winning Submission
The Bencher—July/August 2020
By Tim Rosenberger Jr.
As the present pandemic has transformed almost every facet of life in America, the legal profession has been generous, flexible, and inventive in working to maintain the essential functions of the legal system. I have never been prouder to be entering the legal profession. The selflessness and generosity displayed by attorneys in this trying time is inspiring and a model for the kind of hard work and creative thinking we should bring to our profession in all circumstances.
I am also struck by the way the profession has risen to meet the challenges of this moment and by the lessons we might draw from it to apply to the normal operation of the legal profession. Throughout this time of upheaval, I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to participate in the American Inns of Court and for the mentorship it provides me and my classmates as we think through our future careers.
Lawyers have risen to the challenges of the pandemic with a striking generosity of spirit. They came to the aid of prisoners kept in conditions that would have created unacceptable risks of infection, and many jurisdictions allowed incarcerated persons to return to their homes to serve their periods of detention in relative safety. At the same time, the judiciary has worked hard to preserve the rights of people availing themselves of the law. Courts have assured civil claimants that their cases will be heard as quickly as is feasible. Courts have not allowed the crisis to be used as an excuse to prolong the detentions of criminally accused, but not convicted, persons. Lawyers have brought inventiveness and grit to grappling with this once-in-a-century event.
While customized pandemic behavior is admirable and a credit to the legal profession, it raises questions about how the legal system customarily operates and invites reconsideration of standard practices. Flexible sentencing invites further conversation about how the legal system can be more responsive to community needs and better serve the public. Thousands of prisoners have been released to their homes to limit the spread of coronavirus. Such releases are a concession that, at least in regard to illness, penal institutions can cause great harm to individuals. A virus can spread throughout a prison population quickly and overwhelm even the best efforts to provide medical care.
The legal profession can take the lead in reimagining prisons for a post-pandemic world. If prisons protect society from dangerous people, we should look at whether releasing thousands of prisoners back into their homes and/or communities creates an unacceptable risk. If prisons are designed to punish, we should question why coronavirus in an unacceptable consequence of incarceration while inmate violence is not. If prisons are supposed to rehabilitate, we should see whether prisoners who spent this time of quarantine at home were more or less effectively able to rejoin their communities of origin.
Similarly, if some persons can be given a summons rather than being arrested during a pandemic, perhaps such summons in lieu of arrest should become standard practice. Perhaps some non-violent crimes can be consistently met with sentences that do not involve incarceration. Practices born of necessity may become standard best practice.
The legal system often seems to operate a step behind the technological advancements of broader society. In-person appearances are often required for even minor matters, slated at a time set strictly to a judge’s calendar. This process may be inefficient and may create, particularly in small claims and civil cases, an unnecessary burden for parties. Similarly, courts often demand hard copies of materials, often with duplicate copies, to be distributed to parties and judges. Permanent adoption of secure electronic document systems may offer better outcomes. As jurisdictions become more flexible about appearances, calendars, and materials, we should carry over efficiencies into post-pandemic operations. Such reforms could deliver efficiency for taxpayers, better processes for parties, and a court system better equipped to weather disruptions.
Prior to this outbreak, the American Bar Association refused to accredit JD degrees offered solely online. In the midst of the pandemic, the best law schools in the country have moved their programs online for the duration of the academic year. Schools have changed their grading scales, and on-campus interview programs have been reformatted. Summer legal internships are rethinking how to give students meaningful and substantive experiences. Training and apprenticeship have suddenly been transformed.
As it would seem a missed opportunity to simply revert to the delivery of criminal justice and the logistics of courts to their pre-pandemic norms, so too would the legal academy be short-sighted to take no lessons from this time of crisis-driven experimentation.
Is online delivery of legal education inescapably inferior to in-classroom instruction? Is the quality of law students’ grasp of material consistently best measured by conventional exams? Are law schools better served by graded courses when other professional and graduate schools increasingly move toward binary pass/fail grading systems? If so, the legal academy needs a plan to cure any deficiencies in students deprived of such experiences. If not, the legal academy should consider different modes of instruction, assessments, and grading systems.
On-campus interview programs are employed by many of the nation’s leading law schools to align students with employers. With a lack of clarity around when quarantine orders will be lifted, some schools are proactively moving toward alternate formats for connecting students and employers. Some students will be offered jobs based on resumes and transcripts, without the formal interview process. Others will be interviewed virtually rather than having to come to campus or travel to law firm offices.
If it is possible to hire summer associates without interviewing them in person, the legal profession should reflect on whether the interviews assess the type of attorney an interviewee will make or whether the interview is just a personality screen. If the latter, interviews may actually limit the profession and should be reformed. If interviews can be conducted effectively through virtual channels, the legal profession should think about the economic and environmental costs of on-campus interview programs. Perhaps the interviewing season can be more flexible, more efficient, and gentler in its environmental impact.
Summer legal internships have long been a rite of passage for law students. Internships help students discern the kind of work they would like to do and help employers discern which new attorneys they would like to hire. This year, many internships, including nearly all international ones, have been canceled. Others are grappling with having interns work in modified, often remote, roles.
This unique experience may prepare this summer’s interns with a taste of an important part of legal work—overcoming logistical challenges in the service of clients. But this experience will not provide a reasonable taste of what day-to-day work looks like in many contexts. Law schools and legal employers must undertake special efforts to teach practical skills this summer. If they can do so effectively, the schools and the employers should think about opportunities for students to remotely intern with law firms when they return to the classroom. Such opportunities might increase avenues for practical training and invite law students to experiment with more potential career tracks before selecting their post-graduation destinations.
The American Inns of Court prepared me to think about the implications of this pandemic, and has shaped my thinking on the law, law school, and my career. It has invited me to think more deeply about the profession I aspire to join. It has provided exposure to practitioners, judges, and scholars in a context that makes them seem accessible. I have experienced them as engaged and thoughtful professionals who are deeply interested in the continuous improvement of the legal profession. This perspective has allowed me to see that the leaders of our profession are receptive to ideas for reform and change and interested in results-driven improvements that deliver better outcomes for our society.
And indeed, beyond being receptive to results-driven improvements, the legal profession, through organizations like the American Inns of Court, works to regulate and improve itself and the quality of its service. In my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, a judge refused to grant defendants appearing in her court flexibility in the face of the pandemic. Despite all the other courtrooms in the city being closed, this judge continued to issue warrants for defendants who did not appear. The response from the broader legal community was swift and united. The judge was admonished by the municipal supervising judge, and the Ohio State Supreme Court suspended her for the duration of the crisis. The legal profession worked to stop a bad actor from eroding public confidence in our legal system.
The Inn works proactively to ensure that young lawyers develop into professionals who will be credits to the profession. It shares standards of collegiality and gives lawyers the tools and mentorship to reach their fullest potential. This mentorship is a vital complement to the learning undertaken in a JD program. While law school provides legal knowledge, it does not provide deep engagement with the practice of law. Clinical programs, while excellent learning opportunities, do not invite sustained engagement with the broader community of practicing attorneys. The Inn’s community-based mentorship opportunities prepare lawyers to continuously improve their practice and sense of professional identity. Nothing can replace the unique learning opportunity that affords.
I have been particularly struck by the unparalleled access that the Inns of Court has afforded me to civically minded attorneys practicing in our community. I can connect with mentors who have spent years in practice and/or serving in the judiciary. As a student without access to such networks, this opportunity has provided me more of a sense of actual law practice, the importance of reputation in that practice, and the ways one can be of genuine service to the community as a member of our profession.
Regarding the actual practice of law, the Inns of Court and my mentors have pushed me to think beyond academic questions of the law and to focus instead on using the law to serve clients. I entered law school thinking I would be a strong lawyer because I am a strong student and good problem-solver. Those skills will be helpful in the practice of law, but the Inns of Court has shown me that they are not the most essential. Rather, genuine concern for, and service to, clients is what sets good lawyers apart. Lawyers must take time to understand their clients’ values to represent them well.
Similarly, the Inns of Court has shown me the importance of reputation in the legal community. A lawyer needs to be regarded as more than intelligent and competent. A lawyer must be regarded as collegial, fair, and honest to have the confidence of the broader profession. A lawyer can best represent the interests of a client by having a good relationship with opposing counsel and judges rather than exclusively having a reputation for being a smart or skilled advocate.
Finally, the legal profession serves not only clients but also the broader community. A well-functioning legal system has value beyond the specific clients we serve, and all lawyers are responsible for maintaining its good reputation. We serve the public by doing pro bono work and making sure that everyone has access to the legal counsel they require. Many members of the Inns of Court serve in the judiciary and have provided an example to me of the kind of distinguished career that merits the esteem of the broader profession and of how to be fair and thoughtful as a judge. I have been inspired by speaking with these judges about their work and the fulfillment they draw from public service.
The Inns of Court has shaped my first year of law school and the early contours of my career in the law. It has provided unparalleled mentorship and a professional community committed to integrity and excellence in serving clients and the public. I am grateful to be a part of this group during the global pandemic, and I am hopeful that we may continue to work together to deliver ever greater service to our clients and communities.
Tim Rosenberger Jr. is the inaugural winner of the William A. Ingram Inn of Court's essay contest and recently completed his first year in Stanford University's JD/MBA program. Before attending Stanford, Rosenberger completed his AB at Georgetown University and worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company and as a pastor in Cleveland's inner city.