William & Mary has trained citizen lawyers from its founding. Although the term “citizen lawyer” came to be used more recently, our early ideal was that a William & Mary lawyer wouldn’t simply be a legal technician who had memorized cases and statutes but would be someone who understood how the law worked in the world and who brought insight and meaning from a variety of fields and experiences to the profession.
This approach to legal practice provides the foundation for citizen lawyers to lead in their communities, motivated by the desire for progress and by the knowledge that members of the legal profession have a special responsibility that comes with their degrees. Although our founders’ vision did not incorporate justice for all, we believe that these values — leadership, insight, inclusion, community, and progress — are what distinguishes being a citizen lawyer from simply having a law degree.
Our law school has not, however, always made the opportunity to become a citizen lawyer available to all. Although the Law School’s founding dates back to 1779, it did not graduate its first female student, Virginia Mister, until 1937; our first Black graduate, Edward Travis, was a member of the class of 1954. The concept of the citizen lawyer has been underinclusive in other ways as well. Many in William & Mary’s history would have understood a citizen lawyer primarily to be someone who went into public service, who served as an elected official, or who otherwise held a public position in the governments of the early United States.
Today, we choose a broader definition of what it means to be a citizen lawyer: one that is open to all who come to William & Mary to become a different kind of lawyer. Today’s citizen lawyer is as diverse as our society — we are citizens of the world. We understand the responsibilities that come with our law degree to be those that we bring with us no matter what our role: corporate lawyer, litigator, in-house counsel, public interest or government lawyer, educator, board member, or however else we make use of our skills. We take our values with us no matter where we work or the client we serve. We find ways to use our legal skills to make the world around us better, whether at the highest levels of government or in our own neighborhood organizations. We approach problems with integrity, judgment, and an awareness of the effects of our work beyond the challenge at hand. We seek collaboration and conversation across a wide range of experiences and viewpoints, always with the goal of improving the law.
Our students start their lives as citizen lawyers from their first day at William & Mary. When they graduate, they join a community of alumni who have devoted their careers to upholding these values, across all areas of practice.