Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The State of Legal Education: Are Law Profs Really to Blame?

I enjoy a good professor-bashing blog post as much as the next guy—especially when the targeted profs have said, done, or written silly things.  But today, many people like to blame law profs for the abysmal state of legal education—especially graduates’ staggering debt loads and inability to perform even basic legal tasks.  This blame comes in many forms, but a common criticism is that profs earn way too much money for publishing useless law review articles and, to compound the problem, their schools spend even more money shipping them to pricey, tuition-funded conferences to present their articles to other profs.  This, in turn, drives up the price of legal education and, worse yet, marginalizes (or displaces) real training in legal practice and legal theory.  As it turns out, however, the current state of affairs in legal academia is exactly what students have (unwittingly) asked for. 

First, students are obsessed with the US News rankings of law schools.  For most, this is probably the single biggest factor in choosing a law school.  (If you want proof, just check the numerous blogs that discuss the recently released rankings and debate rankings-related issues.)  Many students even pass on full scholarships, partial scholarships, lower-priced schools, and schools in lower cost of living areas just to go to a school ranked a few spots higher in the US News.  (And if the students are lucky, their chosen school won’t take a double-digit dump after their first year.)

Second, the single biggest factor in the US News rankings on which students rely is law professor rankings of the law schools.  That’s right: we criticize law professors for their bizarre law review articles, lack of practical experience, etc., and then irrationally worship a ranking system that is based 25 percent on law professor opinion (and another 15 percent on “faculty resources”).

Third, schools want students, and students have tunnel vision for the US News, so how do you think State University Law School (or Small Private University Law School) will try to get its ranking up?  That’s right: the most bang for the buck is to spend money impressing law profs at other schools.  That way, when the surveys go out each year, State U. will get higher survey scores and, consequently, a higher US News ranking.

Fourth, how does the Dean of State U. go about impressing profs at other schools?  By hiring excellent, local practitioners as professors and producing practice-ready grads?  No.  As we know, many law profs whose opinions the Dean is seeking to sway have barely practiced law.  Some haven’t practiced in the areas they teach.  Some haven’t practiced at allSome are Ph.D.s who don’t even have law degrees.  The way to win these profs over (thereby improving survey responses and thereby increasing US News rank) is to hire profs just like them—that is, profs who have the same academic backgrounds and who want to publish articles that “are of great interest to the academic[s] that wrote [them], but [aren't] of much help to the bar”—and then let them impress the hell out of each other.

This is not an exaggeration.  Look at any of the journals in which law profs aspire to publish, and check out the authors’ footnotes on some of the articles.  This author, for example, presented her law review article on “racial capitalism” to ten different “workshops” or “colloquiums” at law schools from coast to coast and multiple states in between, and got additional feedback from more than twenty other “wonderful colleagues.”  That’s a lot of money and time—and that time translates into even more money—funded by students’ tuition dollars.

As a practicing lawyer and frequent writer of law review articles, I never would have dreamed of this approach.  My personal view is that if I got feedback from hundreds of people, my article would, at some point, cease to be mine.  However, the professor’s above-described practice of spending countless hours checking with the entire legal academy before publishing an article is the preferred practice among law profs.  And the school’s practice of flying the prof all over the country to read the paper at workshops and colloquiums, regardless of the cost in time and money, is the preferred practice among law schools.  Why?  Because when those annual US News opinion surveys go out to law profs at other schools, those twenty “wonderful colleagues” and the hundreds of profs at those “workshops” and “colloquiums” will remember the author’s work on racial capitalism, and (hopefully) will rank her school higher on their survey because of it.  One law school dean even promised, after his school slipped a mere five spots in the rankings, that he was going to throw even more money at profs to write articles, and was going to pay for extra shiny brochures to advertise the faculty and their publications to “key law school leaders” around the nation.

So, in short, students dogmatically (and sometimes exclusively) rely on a ranking system based predominantly on the opinions of the very people (law profs) that are criticized for driving up the cost of legal education and, worse yet, failing to train students in legal practice and legal theory (as opposed to the social science theory that law profs favor).  To shorten this message up even further: by relying on the US News, students have gotten exactly what they’ve (unwittingly) asked for.

But what to do about this?  It might be too late for most students, and is most certainly too late for grads, but there are two important lessons here for the prospective student—or the 0-L, as he is called.

First, don’t just look at the ranking’s end result.  Dive into the details.  About the only things that will really matter to most students—at least with regard to rankings or lists—are bar passage rates and job placement numbers.  (You’ll soon realize that you don’t care what most professors think, or how many volumes are in the school’s library—you won’t be reading any of them anyway.)  And for those things that do matter, beware of bad data.  You might have to dig further than a particular ranking’s methodology, and even go so far as to uncover your own underlying data (or at least look for a reliable stamp of approval).

And second, if after much research you decide you still want go to law school, think along the lines of personal financial responsibility.  Sure, we live in a country driven by consumer debt.  And even our government loves to borrow relentlessly so it can please the citizenry by spending today, while leaving repayment for future generations to worry about.  Add to this consume-now-pay-later mentality the refrain about how law school is “an investment,” and it seems acceptable to borrow huge sums in order to spend the next three years reading cases (and funding law profs’ coast-to-coast trips to present their articles to other profs).  Some students have even gone so far as to take on the debt with the specific plan of not repaying—a possibly risky approach.  But think of these possibilities: you might be a flop in law school or, even if you love law school and do well, you might hate legal practice once you graduate.  Under these scenarios, that quarter-million in debt may plague you for the rest of your life.  So instead, think ahead and exercise some financial restraint.  Give strong consideration to schools that offer scholarships, schools that are less expensive, and schools in lower cost of living areas.  You will be taught by the same Harvard, Yale, and Stanford grads no matter which school you go to.  (As explained above, low ranked schools impress other schools’ H, Y, and S grads by hiring their own H, Y, and S grads, and then letting them mingle at conferences.)  Further, the dollars you borrow are real, they do add up, and they will become due at some point—and the total due will be even greater than what you borrowed due to accrued interest.

And if you’re not familiar with the concept of accrued interest (or other concepts like future value, present value, and opportunity cost), then you might have some studying to do before you do any borrowing of any kind. 

1 comment:

  1. Is it settled that we’re supposed to uniformly blame legal academia for the situation? I can’t completely subscribe to this.

    Has everyone forgotten about some of the worthless undergrad majors that prospective 0Ls take in order to get high GPAs? History? Literature? Political Science? What demand does the economy have for the graduates who only attain a BA in the field?

    In taking these worthless majors (without regard to employability), which serve no purpose in the economy, a prospective law student starts down an academic path with few options upon graduation.

    Herein lies the problem. It’s the “you can always go to law school with our [insert bullshit degree here]!” sales pitch. As graduation approaches, chances of transferring into a major with employability in the real world decrease. And the salesmen who pitched law school hasn’t bothered to research the market for five years.

    Therefore, it only makes sense that these graduates head to law school, even if employment numbers are dismal. A 0L with 3.4 GPA in history, literature, or political science still has a better chance of landing a legal job with a JD than a non-existent job with their BA in history, literature, or political science. The misconception that these “feeder” degrees are anything more than useless is the problem. Fix this problem, and the big-picture will improve.

    Apparently this is revolutionary idea, so hold on to your hats.

    Undergrad academics, instructing bullshit majors, training young minds to do what nobody will employ them to do after graduation, deserve blame. Legal academics can’t be 100% at fault. Obviously, the complicity of “educating” students where the “education” has no payoff is deplorable. Law professors alone do not monopolize this deplorable conduct.

    A thus-far-unallocated portion of the blame must lie with undergraduate academia. Few actors are as deplorable as those who are content to fill seats for the sake of retaining funding within their university, while disregarding employability and conveniently avoiding discussion of employment prospects with students. These actors are not necessarily limited to law school.