On the one hand, he's a hero:
For more than a decade, Mr. Matasar has been one of the legal academy’s most dogged and scolding critics, and he has repeatedly urged professors and fellow deans to rethink the basics of the law school business model and put the interests of students first.
“What I’ve said to people in giving talks like this in the past is, we should be ashamed of ourselves,” Mr. Matasar said at a 2009 meeting of the Association of American Law Schools. He ended with a challenge: If a law school can’t help its students achieve their goals, “we should shut the damn place down.”
Tough talk from the dean of New York Law School, right? And yet:
N.Y.L.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800 a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation — even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.
David Segal, the author of the Times article, not one to miss a chance of demonstrating his mastery of the obvious, writes:
Asked if there was a contradiction between his stand against expanding class sizes and the growth of the student population at N.Y.L.S., Mr. Matasar wrote: “The answer is that we exist in a market. When there is demand for education, we, like other law schools, respond.”
This is a story about the law school market, a singular creature of American capitalism, one that is so durable it seems utterly impervious to change. Why? The career of Richard Matasar offers some answers. His long-time and seemingly sincere ambition is to “radically disrupt our traditional approach to legal education,” as it says on his N.Y.L.S. Web page. But even he, it seems, is engaged in the same competition for dollars and students that consumes just about everyone with a financial and reputational stake in this business.
Unfortunately, it escapes Segal's notice that this provides no answer to the obvious question. While Dean Matasar may really, really want to do right by the students, the lure of money in a market exempt from reason comes first. It's not an answer.
Talk is cheap. Law school isn't. And as long as fools are desperate to separate themselves from their money, law schools will humbly assist.
Can one blame law schools, deans, for playing Hoover and sucking up all the loose change they can get their hands on? What of the responsibility of law students to have a clue what they're throwing away? What of the ABA's compulsion to accredit new law schools in storefronts formerly housing tattoo parlors? What of the profession's willingness to use and abuse young lawyers to do scut work and then toss them out on their ear when they demand a living salary?
The article ignores that existence of a massive market disconnect, a bubble if you will, that we have all contributed in making. In a lousy economy, students persist in seeking graduate education in the hope that they may have a half-marketable skill while avoiding the hard work of finding a paying job. They hide in their new classrooms in the expectation of waiting out the bad times and cashing in on the good. And law schools are only to happy to help.
And we let them do so. No, we are complicit in their doing so.
How many practicing lawyers tell kids intent on going to law school that being a lawyer is hard work and no guarantee of wealth or prestige? How many explain the basic economics of how much they need to earn to make the law school investment pay off? How many even know the words "opportunity costs?" The ABA isn't made up of gnomes in the backroom of some mystical lawyer village, but of lawyers who work for a living. Why then does it not come to grips with reality and both raise the bar of what is required to become a lawyer while simultaneously slicing and dicing the numbers to come to terms with society is willing to accept?
I recently had a nice email exchange with Dean Matasar following what I deemed a particularly ill-advised move on his part. He explained his purpose, which was fairly noble, and I explained that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. I like him, and accepted his sincerity. But then, it changed nothing.
The job of a law school dean is to make enough money to fund the school and perpetuate its existence. Ironically, it has probably become easier to do at the bottom end of the law school spectrum than the top, as applicants with top grades and great LSATs have a choice of schools, while those at the bottom are constrained to take whatever seat they can get. That leaves the bottom tiers as cash and carry law schools, and any dolt with the will to assume massive debt or a wealthy daddy can be a lawyer too. More or less.
But this isn't a "creature of American capitalism," as Segal contends. This is gouging, just like the gas station in the middle of an oil crisis. And we've all got a finger in it, whether by participating or keeping our yaps shut when integrity would compel us to speak.
Of course, few want to be the bad guys who tell the other players and the inchoate lawyers that it's a lousy deal, a sucker bet, unless you're crazy enough to truly want to be a lawyer. After all, nobody like the person who gives up the secrets. And besides, the pay sucks.