Over the past few days, I’ve watched in awe as a debate unfolded at the ABA Journal’s New Normal column by Paul Lippe. Now I like Paul, and respect both his efforts and acumen, even if I don’t always agree with him, but his post was a flagrant attempt to pass off a logical fallacy, the appeal to authority.
The topic of discussion was the merit of two year law school, and more precisely, the op-ed by Yale Lawprof Bruce Ackerman arguing for the virtues of the third year. Paul wasn’t impressed by Ackerman’s argument. I wasn’t either. One might suppose, then, that I would be cheerleading Paul’s post, given our agreement that Ackerman was blowing smoke. Not quite.
My issue wasn’t with Paul’s conclusion, but with the points he offered in support. For example:
Let me offer a few personal updates which would, if he were interested, bear on professor Ackerman’s arguments:
1. I met last week with the general counsel of a Fortune 20 company (one of the biggest clients in the world) who wants law schools to cut the third year.
And the list goes on to nine points, all in the same vein. Assuming everything to be 110% accurate, and I don’t say this because I think Paul would deliberately deceive, but rather because there is a decided lack of detail with the many meetings and phone calls with “important” people who, Paul says, agree with Paul. Let’s just say there are questions in my mind that greater detail might change the impression one gets from the laundry list.
So does it convince you that it’s time to cut the third year of law school because the general counsel of a Fortune 20 company says so? Would it be more convincing if you knew who it was, knew his reasoning, knew the circumstances or conditions that might be attendant to the conclusion? Knew anything more than what Paul wrote? It would for me.
Much as I agree with Paul’s conclusion, his “argument” was quite disturbing. It’s the level of argument, the indulgence in logical fallacy, that one would not expect to find in the ABA Journal, or made by someone as distinguished as Paul. A guy who spends so much time hanging out with important people ought to be able to offer a far, far better argument than this. It suggested to me that Paul thought his audience pretty darn stupid if they were prepared to accept “some important guy says so” as a reason.
But had this just been a poorly reasoned post, it wouldn’t stand out on the internet. Enter “John.” I would give you his last name if I knew it, but he only gave the name John. When people argue that it’s the argument that matters rather than the identity of the person doing the arguing, it’s usually wrong. When someone relies on their own opinions or their inherent credibility, then their identity matters. But John didn’t do that, though I would like to know his last name because I’m about to write some very nice things about him.
In the comments to Paul’s post, John goes to town.
Paul Lippe’s arguments for the 2-year JD fall as short as Professor Ackerman’s defense of the 3-year JD:
“1. I met last week with the general counsel of a Fortune 20 company (one of the biggest clients in the world) who wants law schools to cut the third year.”
Because the GC of a Fortune 20 company is an expert on legal education? Not only is this the fallacy of a false appeal to authority, but the authority you are appealing to is rather lacking.
Further, there is more to law than serving Fortune 20 companies. There are Fortune 500 companies. Inc 500 companies. Startups. Early-stage companies. Mom and pop shops.
This doesn’t even mention all of the non-corporate work lawyers do. Drafting wills. Defending or prosecuting lawsuits. Criminal law. Family law. Divorces. Probate.
The GC of a Fortune 20 company has a myopic view of the legal market. He may know what’s best for his Fortune 20 company, but it is very likely that won’t be best for another Fortune 20 company, much less any other consumer of legal services.
And that’s only his response to Paul’s first point. John goes through each of Paul’s nine points in similar fashion. It takes a few comments for John to address the points, and he then explains:
My frustration is not that I think Mr. Lippe is a fool. He is not. Mr. Lippe has good and interesting ideas.
Paul responds, with his usual aplomb:
John, thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt as not being a “fool”.
This is one of the reasons you can’t help but like Paul, having both a sense of humor and the chops to take a punch and laugh it off. After offering some additional supporting links to his points, Paul offers some more sophisticated thought to the subject, recognizing that “an important guy said so” isn’t sufficient to persuade a thoughtful person.
In reply, John makes perhaps the most important point of all:
There is much more debate and discussion and experimentation which must be had to resolve this question. The best thing is that we are having it, and that is because of the economic realities facing law schools. One big question is whether law schools will be able to adapt in time to meet those market needs, or if they will simply reduce volume (fewer schools and fewer students) and continue with the status quo.
This is the nature of discussion and debate that is needed to find viable solutions to complex problems, and John’s arguments are less a challenge to Paul’s conclusions than to the simplistic, fallacy-based, jargon-filled pap that’s been widely spread and, sadly, largely accepted.
Regardless of what you think about the 2 year or 3 year debate, discussions need to be both substantive and comprehensive. Paul’s post started out as more fluff, and ended up as an exceptional example of the merit of substantive discussion. And much as I like Paul, this happened because John called him out. Thanks, John.