From the Headlines to the Discussion Table

First Mondays Meeting

Students got a look at the real world of law during First Mondays, a new program in which experts discussed issues ripped from the headlines.

The goal of the series, started last year by Professors Patricia Reyhan and Ted De Barbieri, was to enrich the intellectual  life of the law school and show students the legal overlay of any issue.

“Students come to law school with a passion. They come with a vision of why they want to be lawyers,” Reyhan said. “Then—first year—they just spend their days staring at case books. Sometimes that leads to them forgetting why they came here in the first place.”

It quickly proved popular, with about 35 regulars among the student body. “We started in the fall, talking about the border wall and eminent domain,” De Barbieri said. “The president wants to build a wall on the southern border. Can he even do that?” Then they delved into business law and whether a company could protect the environment or take on any other priority that did not maximize profits for the shareholders.

Students suggested topics, too, and the professors called in outside experts for their perspectives. One student-proposed session focused on Purdue Pharma declaring bankruptcy in the wake of huge lawsuits around opioid drugs.

“I think the students were just outraged that Purdue did what it did,” Reyhan said. “The owners of Purdue had raided the coffers, had transferred money overseas. Why do we allow companies to go into bankruptcy? Why do we allow companies to escape paying the consequences of very intentional behavior? It looks so egregious.”

This led them to run a session on bankruptcy law. “Why do we have it? What are the legal goals? What are the social goals?” Reyhan said. “What are the results if we say you cannot declare bankruptcy? We could have talked for six hours. The students were very engaged.” It was fortuitous, considering that the coronavirus crisis may lead to many people needing a lawyer to help them file for bankruptcy, Reyhan said.

De Barbieri also felt strongly that students needed an opportunity to wrestle with the legal background of current events. “The law is really about how we apply our shared sense of right and wrong in the context of business, politics, and other areas,” he said. “Without a vigorous conversation about what we think as a group, the law is going to be ineffective at addressing issues of justice and injustice.”

The program was an eye-opener for student Caroline Rodriguez ’22, who minored in art history as an undergrad. She didn’t realize the law could involve art—and that might lead to her focus as a lawyer, she said.

“You have a general idea that law exists, but it’s hard to appreciate how intrinsic it is,” Rodriguez said. “People often told me, with a law degree you could do anything. [With First Mondays] you really see that.”

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