Lawprofs React to ABA Working Paper: But We ARE Special

I’ve been called blunt, terse and far, far worse, but rarely has anyone suggested that I’ve been too polite to make my position clear. Apparently, the same can’t be said for the ABA’s committee on the future of legal education, at least as far as lawprofs are concerned. At Concurring Opinions, Lawrence Cunningham questions what exactly they were getting at in the working paper:

Obsession with status is a culprit in the woes of today’s American law schools and faculty, the Working Paper finds.  It charges law professors with pitching in to redress prevailing woes by working to reduce the role of status as a measure of personal and institutional success.

Much of the rest of the Working Paper is admirable, however, making the two specific recommendations to law faculty not only patently absurd but strange in context.

law professors have just two tasks: becoming informed and demoting status.  So there must be some hidden meaning to this idea of status as a culprit and the prescription for prawfs to reduce the importance of status as a measure of success.  I am not sure what it is. The Working Paper does not explain or illustrate the concept of status or how to reduce its importance.

Cunningham goes on to give a rather humorous laundry list of typical prestige whoring by lawprofs in order to show the absurdity of the task force’s unspecified hint that prawfs need to focus more on the job of preparing the next gen of lawyers than making themselves the toast of the Legal Academy. What makes this list particularly enjoyable is that it does a better job of reflecting the scholarly mindset than the overly-kind working paper. A small taste of the list:

Given the other problems the Task Force sees with today’s law faculty culture (tenure, scholarship and leadership roles), I guess they are suggesting that faculty stop making it important whether:

* your undergraduate degree is Ivy League level or from a modest state university

* you went to Yale Law School or Yeshiva University’s law school

* you clerked in the Third Circuit and then for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or had an internship with a District Judge in New Jersey

* you won the Sears Prize or eked out magna cum laude

I just had to stop at the “eked out magna cum laude” line, as it was more than I could stand. That Cunningham can simultaneously be so “brilliant” and tone-deaf is remarkable. Perhaps he’s an idiot-savant, utterly incapable of seeing beyond the shallowness of the criteria for prestige in the academy and grasping  a core value in the working paper.

A law professor is a teacher. If a law professor can impart to students that which will turn their brains from mush to lawyerly, then he is a successful teacher. Whether he won the Sears Prize or eked out magna cum laude means nothing. Absolutely, totally, completely nothing, as far as his ability to be a good teacher. And this wasn’t clear?

The tacit assumption in Cunningham’s list is that lawprofs need internal criteria to distinguish relative importance among themselves. They are validated by whether they went to Yale or Yeshiva (which, of course, is actually Cardozo, but who would expect a scholar to know such lowly things?). There is so little room to maneuver, so few things of consequence available to scholars to make them stand taller, feel more manly, to be more attractive to the opposite sex, that they fixate on trivial irrelevancies that matter to no one but other lawprofs. They are, once the wagons are circled, terrible prestige whores.

That Cunningham didn’t get the point of the working paper isn’t surprising. Indeed, it’s very much the distinction between calling themselves scholars and teachers.  The latter is a lowly aspiration, something anyone with a degree from a pedestrian school can do, while the former is a higher calling, making them the envy of other academics and the first call from reporters of important urban newspapers. How else can the pecking order be established and enforced?

As if to rub his unappreciated brilliance in the faces of the barbarians on the committee, Cunningham snarkily concludes:

Is this the kind of thing the Task Force has in mind in its only concrete specific recommendation for law professors to address challenges in legal education?  If so, the Working Paper, despite seeming to be serious in so many ways, is really a bit of a joke.

It is as if the authors propose to remove psychology from organizational behavior.

In his blindness, Cunningham asks the wrong question. The authors don’t propose to remove psychology from organizational behavior, but to expect lawprofs to stop channeling Tinkerbell and grow up. The job is to teach, not to be the most illustrious scholar among the cool-kid scholars. There is no shortage of trivial criteria by which academics judge the size of their respective sex organs, and the failure of the committee to list each one doesn’t mean they weren’t serious. If anything, they expected the smart kids in law school to be smart enough to understand the point.

Because I try to be a generally helpful fellow, and because I have gained a facility at understanding polite and nuanced language and have no problem with explaining it in clear words, I feel a duty to explain to Cunningham, and those who suffer from the same misapprehension of the report, what the paper is trying to say:

Nobody gives a damn about how prestigious you are among the self-proclaimed scholar crowd. Your job as a lawprof is that of a teacher, nothing more. No one cares that you’ve published 1000 articles in the Harvard Law Review following winning whatever prizes make a lawprof glow with pride. What matters is whether you can take a room of kids who have undertaken a course of study that can be financially ruinous and give them every tool needed to become a lawyer.

But, but, but…how will the other lawprofs know how scholarly I am and how much they should admire my greatness?

Everything else is self-serving prestige whoring, that only impresses the other sherry-drinkers at the faculty conclaves. What the paper is saying is “enough about you and your fragile egos. Either teach well or get a real job.” I hope this helps.


6 comments on “Lawprofs React to ABA Working Paper: But We ARE Special

  1. Doug

    Law school would be a bit better if, the teachers taught part time and actually practiced part time. Like the old days.

    1. SHG Post author

      Like what old days? While I agree that lawprofs should have substantial experience practicing law before becoming teachers, you’ve managed to reduce and equivocate it to the point of absurdity.

  2. EX-paralegal

    Tangentially — if you want a good law librarian, legal secretary, or paralegal — you know, the kind who can think her way out of a paper sack — it is an excellent plan to NOT pretend that said librarian, secretary or paralegal is an idiot as a way to make you, the lawyer, feel more superior. Intelligent assistants tend to quit working for people obsessed with status. They also tend to be the kind of people who can, in fact, find another job. And then, finally, when they hear on the grapevine about your grousing that you just can’t find good help, or even someone familiar with English spelling and punctuation, we just laugh like hell. Oh, it feels so good!

    1. SHG Post author

      Orthogonally, your inability to offer a comment even remotely related to the topic of the post suggests that you are not merely an idiot, but suffering pathologically low self-esteem. Maybe your unemployment problem isn’t a matter of working for people obsessed with status, but people who recognize the intellectually and emotionally challenged?

  3. Jordan Rushie

    What I find remarkable is how “prestige” is a hinderance to practicing law the right way, yet it’s stressed in law school like it’s important…

    Actual lawyering requires doing site inspections in the middle of nowhere, visiting prisons, sitting in a hot courtroom for hours to argue a discovery motion, and talking to a jury in a way that breaks down big concepts in a way a layperson can understand. Sometimes it involves taking out your own trash, shining your own shoes, dropping off checks at the bank, or lugging 50lbs of documents into a courtroom. Most of law is far from pretty, but those are the things that need to get done. I do scut work on a daily basis, a lot of it during the weekend.

    So I find it interesting that law professors stress “prestige” as though it’s important. Like a law degree is a ticket to go to the country club every day and sit around discussing abstract concepts while smoking a pipe. Perhaps writing a memo to a senior partner about some abstract legal theory while collecting a big paycheck. Visit a prison on a weekend? Why, that’s for someone else! Interview a client in a rough part of town? Hardly! That’s certainly beneath someone with MY credentials. Law is an abstract concept, and only sophisticated clients and corporations are worth my time, right?

    Too bad real people with real legal problems make up the majority of people who need the court system, so that is who the majority of lawyers serve.

    And we wonder why new graduates are so inept, and even repulsed by the basic realities of what it means to actually represent clients. Perhaps it’s because their teachers were too busy stressing over who published papers in some journal that no one is ever going to read.

    The second you leave the ivory tower and start to represent clients, you learn that the profession of law isn’t the country club, even though your professors told you differently. There are many days I say to myself “I should have worn boots today instead of wingtips…”

    1. SHG Post author

      The smart kids have different expectations from those of us who only aspired to practice law. Then again, we are validated by serving our clients. They need external validation, and apparently it’s not nearly enough to know that they have taught their students well.

Comments are closed.