Barry Scheck Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

DNA and the Criminal Justice System: Conversation with Barry Scheck, Professor of Law, Yeshiva University; and Co-Director of The Innocence Project, July 25, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being a Lawyer

With the law degree in hand, what exactly were the kinds of things that you did beyond what you've already discussed? What led you into this interface between civil rights and the criminal justice system?

I graduated Berkeley in 1974, and I took the New York and California bars at the same time, and then I worked for the National Lawyers' Guild. I was writing a book about electronic surveillance law with a friend of mine, a grand jury book. But I didn't have a job; I wasn't even really looking that hard for a job. A lot of my friends had become public defenders. So I applied for public defender's jobs, and I got some in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York.

My father was sick, so I came back to New York City and began working as a public defender in the South Bronx. To work as a public defender in South Bronx in 1975/76, it was the time that movie, Fort Apache, The Bronx, was [playing]; really quite a "real-time" experience. It was a pretty tough place to be, but it was also great to be in that kind of an office. A lot of the people that I worked with in that public defender's office in the South Bronx were just like me: they were politically motivated people, they wanted to be people's lawyers. They came from all across the country, a lot of great law schools, people of all different backgrounds, and this little group has gone on to become well known and very successful lawyers, particularly in the criminal law -- it's very interesting -- or successful even in teaching and academics. So it was a great group.

I did that for three years before I began teaching, which is something I didn't intend to get into, either. But there was a new law school that had just started in New York City, the Cardozo Law School. For Yeshiva University, what Einstein Medical School was to medicine, Cardozo was going to be to law. I had a friend who was applying for legal jobs, his name is David Rudolph. He's a prominent trial lawyer down in North Carolina and had taught at the University of North Carolina Law School. He told Yeshiva, "I have friend who'd be very good at this, but he doesn't know it."

They called me up and I got on their faculty, not because they knew anything about whether I could try a case or not, but I went to the right schools. I did clinical teaching. That was a great opportunity, because when you're a clinical teacher at a law school you're entitled to pick what you want to do, and so I could do any cases I wanted to do with the students. You could pick law reform matters, things that you think need exploration, and have an opportunity to do them and get a steady -- although not particularly huge -- salary. It was a good place to be, and a good place to stay intellectually alive, and to have young people keeping you honest about what you're doing, as to whether or not it really is socially useful. I found it a very stimulating environment, so I haven't left for twenty-five years.

What do you tell your students, what does it take to be a lawyer?

That's a great dilemma: Can you be a good person and good lawyer?

Well, I wasn't talking about virtue, I had more in mind skills.

Oh, well, skills is the least of it. If you're going to be a lawyer or a doctor or any kind of professional, it's incumbent upon you to do the best you can, in terms of developing [your] skills. I don't want to put that down; you have to think about it in an important way. But what are you doing? Is it socially useful? Is it ethical? Does it give meaning to your life? If you can answer those questions, then you're going to have a work life that stays with you long into your middle age. I'm fifty-three -- does that count as middle age, or does that mean I'm just damned old?

You're getting there.

I'm getting there.

But from a normative perspective, are you implying that there is a lot about the law that makes you grimace, or are you not sure?

If you go into the law thinking, "I want to use it as a tool for social change," particularly these days, you come up against it, and you realize that much of law is dedicated towards resolving disputes and keeping our economic system, the capitalist system, running. There are what are considered public interest jobs; there aren't that many of them, comparatively.

One of the real dilemmas that we've seen is that the salaries for people going into corporate jobs since I graduated law school compared to today have mushroomed. Right? And the salaries for going into public interest jobs, whether it's being a prosecutor or defense lawyer or legal services lawyers or any kind of public lawyer, have stayed very, very low. At the same time, the amount of money that it costs to go to undergraduate college and law school has, again, mushroomed, so the average student is looking at $70,000 to $100,000 worth of debt, compared to when I graduated. So it's an extraordinarily difficult situation. You turn to the students and you say, "You really ought to go into a public interest law, you really ought to do social justice" -- that's what we like to tell people when we give graduation talks. And they are looking at these huge debts. It's almost hypocritical, in a way. But that's created a real problem. There's actually some legislation now in Congress to try to do loan forgiveness if you do social justice work (in which I would include prosecution and defense and criminal cases) after law school graduation.

One of my Berkeley classmates, Louis Kornhauser, is a professor of law at NYU. He's done a very, very good study of this problem, in terms of the differential between corporate and private practice salaries, and public interest salaries. It's changed enormously since I graduated; it's a different world.

What can make up for today's students' lack of a political and social environment like the one you experienced, and the high you suggested that you got from being part of events in changing the world? They are lacking that opportunity.

I don't think they're lacking that opportunity, there's plenty of very worthwhile and important causes to involve oneself in these days.

Right, the problems are there, they're all over the place, but there doesn't seem to be a mobilizing force in the way there was in the sixties.

It's all generational. If all these young people faced a draft for the war in Iraq, there would be a different reaction. There's no issue like that today.

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