My Turn: Deep understanding of legislative process key for law students
Back in January, I began the first class of a course I teach about Congress at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore with a question: “How does Congress work?”
The immediate response was a rhetorical “Does it work?”
The honest retort reflects an all too familiar sentiment – even among law students who voluntarily dedicate time toward interning on the Hill – but also presents an opportunity to improve our democracy.
The public’s lack of enthusiasm for Congress is almost an American tradition. Even with this in mind, disapproval for the legislative branch is at eye-popping depths.
Real Clear Politics, for example, recently assessed the average Congressional approval rating at under 13 percent. Low approval hinders Congress’s ability to solve challenges facing our country and that, in turn, only furthers the gap between Congress and the American people.
Among the most disheartening elements of the general disapproval with Congress is the lack of urgency among younger voters to take action to correct their perceived problems with the institution.
A recent poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that less than a quarter of the millennials polled said they will “definitely be voting” in November. The poll also found that almost 60 percent of respondents agreed with the assertion that “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities I have.” In other words, younger voters are not likely to go to the polls this fall even though they have significant concerns with the priorities of Congress.
At the same time, once considered among the safest industries, today’s legal practice is rapidly changing and becoming less of a secure bet.
For example, in 2011, of the 44,000 students who graduated from law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, only slightly more than half had full-time jobs as lawyers nine months after graduation. The future does not seem to look much brighter, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Law schools appear to be at a fork in the road, and they need to distinguish themselves.
So what does low congressional approval and lack of younger voter engagement have to do with problems facing the legal profession?
As the semester progressed, the in-depth study of the legislative process and internships seemed to introduce my students to the following ideas: that, while law school focuses on interpreting what legislators write, there is not a great deal of emphasis on learning about the environment in which they write; the logic and legal skills acquired during law school are perfectly suited to the art of legislation and congressional oversight; and there is a large demand for people who understand the legislative process. At the conclusion of the class, students felt as though there was a new arena of potential employment and that their participation in the electoral process will significantly increase.
Law schools should continue to enhance their focus on the legislative process, while also exposing students to related job opportunities with federal, state or local legislatures, as well as for-profit and nonprofit organizations focused on Congress.
At first glance, these positions may not seem legal in nature but they do require the same problem-solving, analytic, and communications skills that law schools have been teaching for ages. Such an emphasis will almost undoubtedly increase the students’ sense of accessibility to these legislatures and the environment in which they operate, thus establishing a familiarity among younger voters that will likely increase their participation in the electoral process.
We never want to be in a position of teaching students – or our citizens – to approve of Congress; rather, we must be dedicated to them ceaselessly working to create legislative bodies of which they approve. If students have access to the world of legislatures and participate more in the electoral process as a result, our democracy, as a whole, will benefit. Given the turning point at which law schools currently find themselves, this is an opportunity that should be seized upon for themselves, their students and our nation.
(Mike Beland grew up in Durham and is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. He previously served as an attorney in the U.S. House of Representatives for a congressional committee.)