1L Perspectives course reimagined, returns as national speaker series

Introduction to Perspectives on the Law is foundational 1L course designed to widen the lens through which first-year students study law that has also been a lightning rod as it has evolved.

In response to concerns raised by students, this past year UW Law faculty, staff and students came together to rework the course as a speaker series that knits tightly with first-year doctrinal curriculum. Each class session features leading national voices who foster deeper engagement on issues central to law’s role in both dismantling and reinforcing systemic inequities in society.

“The first-year curriculum is packed tight with a lot of doctrine, and we can always benefit from more space to step back and look at how the doctrine fits into a larger set of issues,” said Sanne Knudsen, Stimson Bullitt endowed professor of environmental law and professor of law. Knudsen chairs the working group tasked with reimagining the course.

“In particular when we are talking about issues of inequity — including racial, gender, gender identity, wealth — we're focusing on the ways in which law is heralded as a tool for justice and is not always so.”

The working group includes professors Kim Ambrose, Zahr Said and Hugh Spitzer; Lisa Castilleja, director of inclusion initiatives, community outreach and alumni relations and chair of the Dean’s Advisory Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Bill Covington, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion; and Melanie Kray 2L.

The working group’s efforts to create a more welcoming environment for students of color constitute one of the goals set forth in the law school’s Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Past iterations of the course were built largely on theory around race and gender studies. This year, each session ties directly to a course studied during the 1L year — torts, property, criminal and civil procedure law — with speakers joining to explore frameworks in which the law has fallen short in serving marginalized groups.

Knudsen says that while this year represents an imperfect first step given COVID-19 restrictions, the remote environment provided the opportunity to bring in national voices who otherwise may have been constrained by travel requirements.

“We need to hear, even if it is not our own perspective or experience, about the ways in which we need to more appropriately complicate our understanding of law.”

This year’s speakers include Devon Carbado, The Honorable Harry Pregerson professor of law at UCLA Law; Margaret Chon, Donald and Lynda Horowitz professor for the pursuit of justice at Seattle University School of Law; Seth Davis, professor of law at Berkeley Law; and Jennifer Wriggins, Sumner T. Bernstein professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law.

“The working group was aware of the general issues students took with the Perspectives class, and one of the biggest calls this year was for substantive structural changes,” Kray said. Kray was part a coalition of students who staged a demonstration in last year’s Perspectives class, during which they voiced their dissatisfaction with the course’s composition and direction.

“A common criticism is that the conversations needed to be situated within the 1L curriculum, focusing on how the law and doctrines in that field disparately impact marginalized communities. That’s why it took a different approach this year in doing a series that ties each session to a different field.”

Introduction to Perspectives on the Law came about in response to student activism and faculty attempts to create a responsive intervention in the 1L curriculum.

Current curricula at most law schools owe their content to courses and methods Harvard Dean Christopher Langdell prescribed in 1870, including civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, property law and torts.

UW Law, however, also teaches substantive law designed to prepare students to participate in the legal profession effectively and responsibly. In this spirit, the Perspectives course is one of very few dedicated to broadening perspectives through which students study law in the 1L year — a particularly critical time to do so for students beginning their legal education.

“Law must be studied from a moral, holistic vantage point,” said Mario L. Barnes, Toni Rembe Dean and professor of law. “And we must do it is a way that allows us to challenge not only commonplace understandings of how law operates, but the way in which law — which we often hold out as a tool for creating equality — may also be a tool to substantiate unfair arrangements in society.

“We need to hear, even if it is not our own perspective or experience, about the ways in which we need to more appropriately complicate our understanding of law.”

Read UW Law’s Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and review quarterly reports on ongoing progress toward the goals outlined therein: