When invited to write an essay on clinical legal education honoring our friend, we were struck by the importance of a focus on clinical legal education in any collection of work paying tribute to Professor Deborah Jones Merritt. Legal education has benefited from a fifty-year movement for clinical education. This movement necessarily interrogates and seeks to overcome the anachronistic, inherited Langdellian paradigm that dominates and continues to define the curricula and policies of our law schools. But the movement for clinical education has been exponentially confounded by contemporary legal education’s shape as a pyramid of statuses and privileges accumulated over time and embedded in the straight, white, male, ableist, classist structures of American universities, our legal system, and our laws.
Progress has been made. Thousands of lawyers now enter the profession with the advantage of having practiced under the supervision of faculty who choose to live in the fray of the reality of clients’ lives, the ambiguity of the real world, and the politics of the profession. Thousands of lawyers have learned through clinical education the habits of planning, doing, and reflecting that are otherwise invisible in the academy.
But clinical faculty typically work at lower pay in smaller offices on cases that don’t run on an academic timetable, in physical and ideological structures that are ill-suited for law practice, and in statuses that deprive them of the ability to build a better-suited environment. Perhaps most cruelly in an academic environment, clinical faculty have faced the pervasive stigma of the foolish but well-entrenched notion that classroom teaching far removed from practice demands a higher order of intellect. Professor Merritt understood this to be untrue, unjust, bad for students, and potentially disastrous for their future clients.
With the ambition to undertake her best work and motivated to hew her efforts to their highest calling, Professor Merritt unflinchingly and joyfully crossed the divide to become a clinician. At the height of an exceptional professorial career, Professor Merritt cheerfully changed course. She had learned from her students that she should become a different kind of professor so they could become the lawyers they wanted to be, the lawyers their future clients deserved. We are humbled to write in honor of such a clear-eyed colleague.
82 Ohio St. L.J. 911 (2021).
Angelos, Claudia; Bilek, Mary Lu; and Howarth, Joan W., "The Deborah Jones Merritt Center for the Advancement of Justice" (2021). Scholarly Works. 1355.