Benchslap: Judge Kane on Law Schools

District of Colorado Senior Judge John Kane offers his views on Law Schools (originally posted at Paul Campos’  Inside the Law School Scam).



        It is no secret that many lawyers are dissatisfied with their profession.  Of the million or so lawyers in the United States (more per capita by far than any other country) over half are said to be unhappy and giving serious consideration to leaving the practice of law.  A burgeoning industry of coaching, counseling, and career change assistance has developed to guide such people to new opportunities.  Facing declining applicant pools, law schools advertise that a legal education is worth its steep price irrespective of whether the graduate intends to practice law or engage in some other pursuit.  But a number of recent law graduates have sued their schools, alleging that the law schools misrepresent post-graduate employment opportunities, that few jobs as lawyers are available, and those jobs that are available pay substantially less than law schools have represented.  Indeed many law graduates are saddled with large student loan debts that place them in indentured servitude for years.  The average debt for recent graduates exceeds $100,000.00.

        Law professors are among the highest paid academics, and enjoy the newest buildings on ever-enlarging campuses.  Law schools employ many part-time adjuncts who teach large enrollment classes for meager fees, generating even more profits for the law school budget, and less teaching time for the tenured faculty.  Overhead costs for laboratories, equipment and floor space are nearly non-existent.  Yet the law schools are engaged in fierce competition for increased enrollment and that most elusive of goals:  academic prestige.  The annual ranking of law schools by U.S. News and World Report becomes the coveted benchmark.  Because law schools are profit centers for the universities, there is little external oversight of their operations.  The litany of ensuing dubious practices includes puffing up of enrollees’ Law School Aptitude test scores and undergraduate GPAs, misleading and rigged graduate placement reports, and some not-so-subtle innovations such as paying stipends to recent graduates to work for free in courts, prosecutors’ offices and private firms during the sampling period.

        A few brave and talented legal academics such as Paul Campos of the University of Colorado and Brian Tamanaha of Washington University St. Louis have risked becoming pariahs among their colleagues by exposing the failures and shortcomings of the law school institution.  Accused of failing to prepare graduates to enter the profession, the law schools attempt to address the issues through economic arguments.  Their students, they claim, are “practice ready,” meaning law firms can shift their most basic investment in young associates from the corporate clients who are no longer willing to foot the bill back to the very institutions responsible for creating the glutted market.  In turn, graduates are forced to work long hours with less supervision on stultifying tasks at pay levels making service of their acquired debt nearly impossible, all for the promise of a partnership that has become a vanishing hope.  

        Recent accounts, such as Running From The Law by Deborah Arron assert that more than half of young lawyers leave the law knowing they have been lied to.  They have sought the law as a means of earning a comfortable and secure living.  They have been taught that academic standing in class increases one’s job prospects.  The law schools have abandoned teaching that the most fundamental aspect of the profession is one of service.  When the primary purpose of service is ignored, the practice of law is condemned to drudgery, to the pure hell of endless hours of performing rote work for a fee.

        Plato knew that people learn by example, and from demonstrations illustrating the lessons to be learned.  It is all well and good for law schools to offer courses in the substantive subjects of the law, but more fundamental to acquiring knowledge and forming character is the conduct of teachers and the institution they attend.  (Indeed the word “attend” literally means “to pay attention to.”)  Just as bad parenting produces bad children who grow up to become bad parents, what the student sees and feels counts more than routines of “practice ready” performance.

        No wonder law students are learning to be materialistic and cynical, to consider the profession of law as gamesmanship, and merely a way to earn more money than the next person.  When law schools misrepresent LSAT scores and job opportunities, offer third year courses with little or no pedagogic purpose or value, engage in grade inflation and charge ever-increasing tuition and fees, students learn that fraud, dissimulation and ethical corner-cutting are acceptable standards of behavior.  When they learn of the gross separation in salaries and status and the relatively soft work schedules of the doctrinal faculty compared with clinical instructors with whom they have much closer personal contact, when they learn that adjunct faculty are paid pittances and used and abused as profit centers, when they see that school administrators outnumber scholars and that tenure is becoming obsolete, how can they not be expected to accept that this status quo is the criterion for the professional life?

        Law schools claim that pragmatism is the only way to address fierce competition.  To what end?  Making graduates “practice ready” is an illusion, which is not only impossible to achieve, but in fact detrimental to the life and career of the student.  The goal should be to produce young lawyers who, as Thomas Wolfe described writers attending workshops, are “ready to commence to begin to start” to learn, through a lifetime of practice, the art and craft of guiding others to safe passage through the extremities of experience, to achieve socially appropriate goals, and to insist on leading ethical lives.  It is not to produce yet another cadre of cynical shysters grasping for more fees or a legion of those who flee the profession in despair. 

As Judge Kane’s comments make clear, the problems facing law students and new lawyers aren’t limited to those who are suffering the consequences of unemployment and debt. The word is out. The judiciary is aware of what’s happening in the real world.  One would think this is a good thing, recognition and validation of some of the concerns at the core of a new lawyer’s world.

Not so fast. As much as the issues recognized by Judge Kane may reflect some of the concerns, his failure to embrace their “needs” and elevate their money-demands above all else produced some curious reactions :

Well, thankee-you your honor!

You managed to sum up none of our real life problems, nor provide any solutions.

In case we’re just too far below your prestigious federal perch for you to see clearly, here’s the basics. First, there are twice as many law grads as there are jobs. Second, law school is twice as expensive as it should be.

Until those two problems are resolved, you can spout off all of your Ivy League, pre-Boomer idealogy as you like. Service? Professionalism? Socially appropriate goals? Ethical lives? What are you, the ABA advertising committee?

My god, you have managed to prove, in those few short paragraphs, that the federal bench is probably the only place in the entire legal profession that is more out of touch with the needs of legal education than law professors themselves. With your Ivy League, prestigious, upper-class, well-connected backgrounds, your attendance at law school when law school was cheap and lawyers were comparatively rare, your lack of student loans, your lack of real struggle, and your utter impracticality. Don’t try to pretend that most things in your professional life weren’t handed to you on a silver platter. There are few rags-to-riches federal judges.

But I do appreciate the lesson in the origins of the word “attend”. That’s worth its weight in gold! All our problems are solved! You be makin’ it rain, bro!

Aside from the usual facile projections that youngun’s use to trivialize ideas that fail to meet all of their demands, always a flawed riposte and yet employed all the time (is this what they’re taught in law school these days?), the core response is that as bad as law schools might be, the only thing new lawyers want is to make money.

Screw serving clients. Screw integrity. They’re hungry and couldn’t give a damn. They want money, and if you don’t have a solution that puts money in their pockets right now, screw you too.

Judge Kane castigates the law school establishment for “teaching by example,” thus producing new lawyers who are “materialistic and cynical.”  Apparently, it’s the one thing they’ve taught well. There  is much to correct and change in our approach to legal education, but there is also much to correct and change in the attitudes and understanding of law students and young lawyers.

The law does not exist so you can make a decent living and have a comfortable life. The law exists to serve clients. A decent living is a collateral consequence of a well-conceived profession, not its purpose.  As much as legal academia is a fiasco, so too are the misguided, entitled attitudes of some of the new lawyers who are certain they’ve been cheated out of their due.

When a federal judge goes out on a limb to support reform, you don’t spit at him for not rubbing your tummy exactly the way you want him too. Grow up.

4 comments on “Benchslap: Judge Kane on Law Schools

  1. Thomas

    This reminds me of a Frontline documentary I watched the other night on Michelle Rhee, the controversial superintendent of the Washington DC public school system who gained her reputation as a tough administrator by firing teachers and principals who failed to meet her high standards. This was rough news for those who were let go, but Rhee was a bit puzzled when the interviewer seemed so surprised that firing employees appeared not to bother her personally. Her reaction (in sum and substance): my job is not make sure every teacher holds on to their job. I do not serve the teachers. I serve the schools, and my job is to ensure that our kids are getting a good education.

    ‘Nuff said. Educators serve students and lawyers serves clients. A comfortable living with moments of personal fulfillment are a nice ancillary benefit in this profession. Problem is many did not truly wish to become lawyers in the first place, hence the lack of personal fulfillment.

  2. SHG

    Maybe that was a repeat, but I saw that interview (or a similar one) a while back and caught the same thing. Yes. Absolutely yes. And yet, this understanding of what we are and what we do and why there is such a thing as the legal professions is essentially lost to so many new lawyers. It’s a travesty.

  3. Jim Maule

    ” The goal should be to produce young lawyers who, as Thomas Wolfe described writers attending workshops, are “ready to commence to begin to start” to learn, through a lifetime of practice, the art and craft of guiding others to safe passage through the extremities of experience, to achieve socially appropriate goals, and to insist on leading ethical lives.” So why isn’t this happening at the undergraduate level, so that the graduate and professional schools can work with students who have acquired these qualities, which are no less important in any profession or career as they are in law?

  4. SHG

    A good question. Likely because they’re being raised that way, and the education-industrial complex isn’t willing to needlessly sour its consumers.

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