Ode to Cornell University, Ivy and All

Carolyn Elefant went home again over the weekend to her alma mater, Cornell Law School.  Her law school chums were passing out buttons to express their spirit of “no pettifoggers,” Andrew Dickson White’s dream.  Carolyn was unimpressed.

Like most other law schools, Cornell has stepped up its marketing efforts, branding itself with the tag line “lawyers in the best sense.”  The quote comes from Andrew Dickson White, one of the school’s founders, who envisioned the law school as a place to educate  “not swarms of hastily prepared  pettifoggers but a fair number of well-trained, large-minded, morally-based lawyers in the best sense…” Indeed, a bunch of alumni are even circulating buttons with a picture of a pettifogger and a big red X through it.

My initial reaction was that this slogan is just so typically, quintessentially Cornell – removed from present times, stuck in the past and such.   At a time when lawyers out here in the blogosphere, on the cutting edge of the law, are talking about social networking and building relationships and 21st century practices, here’s my alma mater, concerned about stamping out pettifoggers. 

I was a Cornell undergrad, lacking the basic qualification to attain entry to the old guard Ivy’s (the ability to pay the tuition and the knowledge of which bread plate was mine).  Cornell had a couple of land grant schools through the largess of the State of New York, which enabled the riff raff with decent SAT scores to get a room at Mary Donlon Hall in the North Campus. 

Carolyn changed her mind about the “no pettifoggers” button after further consideration. 

And then I realized that’s why the brand works.  Because for better or worse, the tag line is genuine representation of Cornell Law School’s authentic self.  With it’s tag line, borrowed from its past, Cornell isn’t trying to be anything other than it is:  a solid, monastic place somewhat isolated from the real world where students can focus on their training.  Some may want this type of education, and others might not, but those who come to Cornell will get what’s been put out there.  No false advertising here. 

There’s no shame in a school being true to itself.  If indeed that’s the case.  It begs the question of why Cornell University law school needs a tag line to attract students.  Has it so badly fallen from grace that it picks up the dregs of the applicant pool?  That would be terrible, but I don’t believe it to be true.

My sense is that this is all part of the U.S. News and World Reports Syndrome.  The tierism that has blinded the academy from its purpose and seized the hearts and minds of professorial class.  Or maybe the need for an extra 1,000 applications from students who will never gain admittance will pay for new leaded glass in the windows of Myron Taylor Hall.

I don’t believe any law school has as yet adopted the slogan, Pettifoggers-r-Us, leaving it up for grabs.  Of course, most potential law students won’t know (or care) what a pettifogger is, making the slogan relatively unhelpful in any event.  The ad campaign to enlighten law school applicants probably isn’t worth the potential draw of pettifogger wannabes.  I could be wrong about this.

I received a superb education at Cornell University.  I didn’t appreciate how good it was until much later, when the amorphous stuff that was stored away in the far reaches of my brain turned out to be useful.  Had I realized it at the time, I would have paid much closer attention.  I blame this on Roger Kieran, my adviser, who tried unsuccessfully to turn me into a wobbly.  I’ve just googled Roger and found no evidence that he ever existed. 

So Cornell wants to produce “lawyers in the best sense.”  Me too.  I would suggest that they lead by example and be a “law school in the best sense” by concentrating on their students and rejecting any urge to slavishly succumb to tierism.  Then they won’t need to pass out silly “no pettifoggers” buttons to the alumni and can focus their reunion efforts on the more important things, like explaining what happened to “the stump.”

The Stump

The Stump


2 thoughts on “Ode to Cornell University, Ivy and All

  1. Poro. Yabut

    Scott, if you think the Bar has any shortage of pettifoggers in the 21st Century, you are sadly mistaken.

    pettifogger: 1. A petty, quibbling, unscrupulous lawyer. 2. One who quibbles over trivia. [from American Heritage Dictionary]

    And, please tell Carolyn that very few blawgers are on the cutting edge, and those who are talking New Agey stuff seem mostly interested in higher profits and less work.

  2. SHG

    But the post isn’t about the bar having pettifoggers, but law schools promoting themselves as a place that produces them.  A nuanced difference, perhaps, but a significant one. 

    As for many blawgers being self-promoters, this is also a problem that we address regularly and in some detail.  Blawgs are like anything else; there are good and bad in the universe. Some even include haiku.  Feel free to go tell Carolyn yourself.

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