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May 06, 2024 ABA Task Force for American Democracy

The State of Democracy Education in Law Schools

Jacob Williams and Sydney Grell


Democracy plays an indispensable role within the context of law school education by emphasizing its multifaceted influence on fostering critical legal thinking, shaping ethical values, and preparing students for active participation in the legal system. By nurturing an environment of open dialogue, inclusivity, and respect for diverse perspectives, law schools can cultivate the next generation of legal minds who are not only well-versed in the law but also adept at advocating for the principles that underpin a just and democratic society.

Law students play an important role in the political system as legal representatives soon to enter the profession. In law school, students’ time is limited, but the larger system is important to consider. Historically, law school and earlier education featured classes on the history of the common law and on civics. Now, most law schools do not feature many classes that demonstrate the role that lawyers play in fostering, safeguarding, and promoting democracy. In fact, our research could not uncover a single required law school course that is solely devoted to teaching the basics of democracy and the rule of law.

The required course in current law school curricula that offers the strongest foundation in civics is Constitutional Law. Outside of this course, law schools do not have required courses specifically meant to increase law students’ knowledge or interest in civics.

Vicki C. Jackson, president of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) wrote in 2019 of a declining interest in civics and living in a democratic society from young people linked to a disinvestment in civics education over the last half century. While Jackson goes on to describe several classes offered by a growing number of schools, these classes are not required and likely are only increasing knowledge and interest in civics from a subset of law students already intrigued by the idea from the start. The effect on the civics education of the general population of law students seems minimal.

One of the issues present in law schools is that most democracy-related groups are heavily influenced by partisan ideals, which can isolate people who are not interested in that party’s ideals to the same extent. Another issue present in the legal curriculum is the self-selecting nature of non-required courses. Those interested in democracy, for whatever reason, are those who would choose a class on democracy. We are looking to ignite a broader sense of passion for democracy than a non-required class can offer.

Problem Statement

In the United States, there exists a pervasive sense of distrust and heightened political polarization within the democratic system. Central to the democratic process is the emphasis on individual participation through voting and holding accountable those who do not adhere to established rules and regulations. Regrettably, these critical aspects often become entangled with political and partisan motivations. Nevertheless, nonpartisan endeavors to underscore the significance of democracy in our system emerge as vital champions of its core values.

Structurally, law professors wishing to teach democracy or civics courses are in a weak position. There is little incentive to teach about a topic that is rife with political sensitivities without traditional and explicit protections provided by the university. Traditionally, tenure has been a shield to protect professors, allowing them to broach sensitive topics with their students. However, tenure in many states is eroding, being replaced by partisan demands on how to teach and what should be taught. For the law school to be an official venue of democratic education, the incentives must align with the professors’ interests. Tenure protections and legitimate support from the university when a professor is in a public-facing dialogue might improve the likelihood of a professor teaching about democracy.

Another problem is that law schools focus much more on the judicial branch than the legislative branch. This juris-centric curriculum does not teach about democratic government. Rather, it focuses on disputes and, when the legislative or executive branches are brought into play, discussion and dialogue is usually limited to the interpretation of the courts regarding the matter instead of some of the foundational structures and policy considerations. Furthermore, law school curriculum emphasizes the role of the single judge’s interpretation on law and policy rather than the wishes of the populace.

Overall, law schools lack a venue or course in which different visions and changes in democracy are explored, analyzed, and critiqued. There is no single definition of democracy. So, it is the responsibility of law schools to recognize the complexity of democracy and to teach it in a robust and rigorous manner.

Possible Solutions

A robust democracy-oriented program can empower aspiring legal professionals to comprehend the intricate interplay between law and societal values, equipping them to navigate complex legal landscapes and contribute meaningfully to justice and equity. However, we don’t want just to interest some people in democracy; we want a broader spectrum of law students to reignite interest in people disenchanted with the current political system. How can we do this?

Experiential Curricula

Experiential solutions such as law school student clinics, volunteer opportunities, and pre-law school modules would be effective in igniting interest in both democracy and civics. While this idea suffers from the same weakness as teaching a class on the subject (students already interested in democracy/civics are the first through the door), its merits outweigh traditional classroom education in many ways. Because experiential classes involve the students in a less traditional way, students interact with real issues personally. Even an experiential module in a class like Professional Responsibility could consist of going down to the state’s capitol to witness the democratic process in person. Up close and personal experience with election issues, voter discrimination, or any number of democratically based issues would truly ignite law students to know and participate more in democracy.

Potential Experiential highlights:

  1. A “Go Between” – In areas with low trust in elections and democracy, the law school is in an important position that can act as a go between with voters and the government. In a place like Georgia (currently in litigation with former President Donald Trump over election allegations) the law school can potentially play a role in removing political leanings from the trial’s results. The rule of law is important, and it has been such a reminder that we are always on the forefront of the law.
  2. Working In Collaboration With NGOs – The Background Paper on Democracy NGOs lists many NGOs involved with democracy, some with region specific concerns. Law Schools ought to be involved with those NGOs as a source of legal help for a likely understaffed and underfunded effort.
  3. Working On Voter Discrimination or Voter Access Cases – There are always voter related cases, many of which come from underrepresented and underserved populations. Law schools are in unique a position to offer legal services pertaining to democracy.
  4. Working with Mail in Voting – Law schools can research the legal and actual impacts.
  5. Working with Policy Makers – Connecting with local government officials, law schools can arrange trips to observe legislative processes, fostering a deeper understanding of democracy in action.

Club Funding

Nonpartisan funding for democratic clubs is minimal to nonexistent. As it stands, law school clubs on campus have inherent political leanings and funding, which inhibits participation from a broader group of students not falling into either conservative or liberal camps.


Increasing incentives and protections for professors that are interested in teaching about democracy and civics would help spread democratic lessons into every aspect of law school classes. Such incentives could include a variety of things (increased pay, reduced workload, or other perks) but must include tenure protections. This ensures that professors would be free to discuss politically sensitive subjects with their students absent interference from fear of losing their employment.

Centers and Scholars

The American Constitution Society offers a scholar award in which law schools can compete for grants for a lecture by a prominent legal scholar. This is something the ABA could replicate with a Democracy Scholar of the Year who receives funding to travel to a variety of law schools and educate. Furthermore, the creation of a Center for Democracy with a focus on educating the public along with law schools would be a great way to generate new ideas for democracy in an ongoing form. The Center could bring in 2-3 professors a year to come up with ideas for democracy education and create content that can be distributed to interested law schools. Law schools in state capitols, for example, would be ideally situated to provide democracy education in the coming years.

Election Season

Law schools during election season can set aside Election Day as a day of no classes for students to work as poll workers and perform nonpartisan election work. Nothing teaches a student more about democracy than facilitating an election.

Local Government

All law schools are located in places with a local government that has alumni among their ranks. Using those connections to establish a connection with key classes to take field trips out to visit representatives making laws and performing their functions in a democratic institution would be a great learning experience. Particularly in states like Georgia with short legislative sessions, legislatures’ need for legal research is very high, and a university is a perfect place to provide that and in doing so educate about the reality of the democratic process.

These ideas are not an exhaustive list. Improvement of democracy education in law school will likely come in many forms and be different for every law school.

Other Questions

Is there a way to remove partisanship from democracy? One problem discussed was tied to the partisanship that is associated with the discussion of democracy and its issues. Is there a way to completely remove partisanship from discussions on democracy?

Our Informal Survey of Law Students

In attempting to find solutions to these problems we posed two questions to law students. The first question revolved around identifying the most effective method for law students to engage with and enhance their knowledge of the concept of democracy. We conducted an informal straw poll involving over 100 GSU law students. Among the various options considered below, two emerged as the most popular choices: integrated learning modules into established law school courses, and experiential learning opportunities, such as participating in a democracy-related clinic. We firmly believe that these two approaches offer us the opportunity to enrich our students' understanding of democracy without necessitating a complete overhaul of our existing curriculum. Moreover, they allow us to reinforce democratic principles across various courses throughout the three-year law school journey.

The second question delved into what GSU law students perceived as the primary obstacles dampening interest in our current democratic system. This insight can be invaluable in shaping the type of learning experiences we choose to implement based on our response to the first question. It became evident from our inquiry, which remained open to additional suggestions beyond the initial three options, that the prevailing concern was the excessive influence of partisanship within our democracy, dissuading a significant portion of individuals. Although entirely eradicating partisanship from the discourse on democracy may be challenging, recognizing it as a prevailing issue that hinders our educational objectives in this domain is a crucial starting point. The second most significant concern was that the United States had an issue related to candidates for elected offices. Responses spanned from the likability of candidates to the perceived lack of choice, but it was unmistakable that there was a significant lack of trust and general dissatisfaction with recent candidates. This issue could be addressed within the educational solution by delving deeper into candidates, their beliefs, and their history. This approach may help students find more common ground with them and potentially inspire greater trust in their candidacies. We had a total of 115 responses.

What Is the Most Effective Way to Have Students Engage with Democracy?


Average Choice

(1 being favorite, 6 being least)

Semester long course on democracy or civics 2.85
Spring break program working with NGOs 2.88
Volunteer opportunity with voting rights or poll participation 2.83
Experiential clinic centered around voting rights/registration 2.78
Orientation module (e.g. 0L) based on civics/democracy 3
Integration of activities into required classes pertaining to civics/democracy 2.66
As a law student, please prioritize the following programs related to democracy and civic engagement, indicating your preferences: 1 being most likely

As a law student, please prioritize the following programs related to democracy and civic engagement, indicating your preferences: 1 being most likely

Primary Obstacles That Dampen Your Interest?

Reason Percentage After "Other" Options
The significant influence of partisanship.


Recent candidates (or the lack of candidates). 36.9%
Lack of representation.


As a Law student, what do you think most deters a person away from our current democracy?

As a Law student, what do you think most deters a person away from our current democracy?

This document has been submitted to the Task Force for American Democracy for consideration and has been posted and/or circulated for information purposes only. The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author(s) and not those of the Task Force or the ABA. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities. This publication is freely available to download, copy and distribute provided there is attribution to the ABA Task Force for American Democracy, and provided this notice is reproduced on all copies.

    Jacob Williams

    Georgia State University College of Law

    Jacob Williams is currently a second-year law student at Georgia State University College of Law. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from The University of Georgia in 2015. Following his undergraduate studies, Jacob worked as the regional manager for Salvage World, an overstock company operating in the southeastern United States. During his time at GSU Law, Jacob has honed his legal skills through a clerkship at Dukes Dukes & Hunter and aspires to specialize in environmental law upon completing law school.

    Sydney Grell

    Georgia State University College of Law

    Sydney Grell is currently a second-year law student at Georgia State University College of Law. She graduated from Georgia Tech in 2020, where she majored in mechanical engineering with a minor in industrial design. During her time in undergrad, she conducted research in the Psychology and Mechanical Engineering Departments. So far, during her time at GSU, she has interned at Georgia Pacific LLC and will be interning at Equifax Inc. this coming semester. She is currently on the Georgia State University Law Review and looks forward to practicing intellectual property law in the future.