Law in Contemporary Society

Legal Education in Secondary Schools

-- By YejinJennyHan - 27 Feb 2009


My family was involved in a lawsuit several years ago. We were new to America and had absolutely no idea how to seek help. Though we could afford a competent attorney, we did not know how to find one. This ignorance of the law left us with no direction.

Knowledge of the law is essential to modern life: it enables people to use the legal system, to change their behavior so they don’t break it, and to act with confidence. Providing legal education in secondary schools would provide a sound starting point to promote understanding of the law within the general public.

Why should we teach the law?

People can use the system effectively only if they have knowledge of their legal rights and of the structure of the legal system generally. Because most Americans are aware of their First Amendment rights, they can resort to the legal system when they feel those freedoms have been violated. Without this understanding, however, they would not be able to seek protection of those rights or even to recognize that a violation of rights has occurred.

Though people can consult both law firms and the Internet to learn about the law and their rights, both alternatives are flawed. Law firms often charge high sums for legal advice, and researching the millions of statutes, codes, and acts that make up the U.S. legal system, or even law books written in confusing legal language, without guidance would overwhelm most people. If a tenant in an apartment complex is injured in a dangerously maintained common area and is unaware of his rights, he faces a difficult choice: does he hire an expensive lawyer for legal advice, engage in a potentially fruitless search for information, or does he let it go without further expense? Because legal advice is expensive, and legal resources confusing and time-consuming, individuals who are unaware of their rights often let them go unenforced. The capacity to use the legal system stems from the awareness of the rights in the first place.

Individuals can also avoid unknowingly violating the law by learning it. For instance, a property owner unfamiliar with the adverse possession rule might lose his property upon return from study abroad due to the expired statute of limitations. Had he learned about the adverse possession rule earlier, he would have behaved differently, by, for instance, leasing the land. Good faith ignorance of the law is rarely a valid legal defense, yet knowledge of the law is difficult to come by. If individuals are to be governed by the law they should be provided a degree of basic legal education.

Knowledge of the law also elevates self-esteem. Our society respects law, and people get a sense of self-satisfaction from having knowledge about it. I remember the night of the first official banquet for 1Ls, where I saw proud smiles on the face of each student; it seems likely that the prospect of being in law school and of becoming a person with the powerful tool of legal knowledge played a significant role in those expressions.


Some people may contend that law is so complex and profound that children cannot understand it. Our educational system, however, has proven adept at simplifying complex ideas to suit the level of children’s understanding. Today secondary schools teach various subjects including physics, earth sciences, and astronomy, none of which is a basic subject. The Bible, which provides a challenge to biblical scholars, has also been repeatedly revised and simplified; for children there are Bible cartoons. Law does not substantially differ from physics or biology or the Bible in terms of complexity and profundity. Legal scholars could identify concepts most relevant to daily living and create a simple curriculum for high school students. For middle school students, teachers could teach with legal cartoons based on the actual stories of cases.

With a well-designed basic curriculum in place, schools could hire law school students as teachers. Appointing law school students would benefit both the school and the law students. For law students, the teaching experience would train them to effectively present legal matters, and the schools would conserve resources by hiring students instead of certified teachers. In the 1970s, William A. Wirt High School in Indiana offered a legal educational program taught by local law school students who received credits for participating in the program. The law students noted after participating in the program that they sharpened their research, communication, and oral skills. Considering the difficulty of hiring professional instructors with legal educational backgrounds to teach, hiring law students would be a good solution.


When my family was involved in the suit, the opposing family threatened to imprison my family unless an exorbitant amount of damages were paid. Now I know that my family bore only slight liability; however at the time, the ignorance of law frustrated us with uncertainty, despite the comforting words of our lawyer. Ignorance of the law is like darkness without direction. Legal education in secondary schools will not only empower individuals to make effective use of the legal system and to behave in compliance with the law but also offer the compass individuals need in order to navigate through legal challenges.

  • You might be interested in Jim O'Neill's "Streetlaw" program, which does what you have in mind for eighth graders in our neighborhood using Columbia Law students as teachers.

  • I think the essay could be edited more tightly, both at and above the sentence level. You can say what you want to say more economically without depriving it of any force. But I think both the concept and the execution of the essay are good as they stand, so the editorial work needed is not radical in nature.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" on the next line:

# * Set ALLOWTOPICVIEW = TWikiAdminGroup, YejinJennyHan

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of that line. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated list


Webs Webs

r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:12:11 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM