Law School Undressed

Via Louisville Law School Dean Jim Chen at MoneyLaw, a blawg for alternate concepts of how we should look at legal education (and where Jim handed me the back door keys years ago but never added me to the list of contributors lest I stink up the place with my vulgar trench lawyer language and attitude), there’s a new deep throat in the Academy.

I can no longer ignore that, for a very large proportion of my students, law school has become something very much like a scam. . . . When people say ‘law school is a scam,’ what that really means, at the level of actual moral responsibility, is that law professors are scamming their students.
So laments the introductory post to Inside the Law School Scam, a confessional blog by an anonymous “tenured mid-career faculty member at a Tier One school.” This fascinating contribution to the burgeoning online literature on the economics of legal education and law school graduates’ job prospects is unique because it comes from the inside. In his critique of legal scholarship, this blogger, both tenured and anonymous, confesses that “students at the contemporary law school end up paying enormous amounts of money for something that they aren’t getting, and in many cases wouldn’t want even if it were being provided to them.”

How cool is that, a guy pulling down a couple hundred thou to a few hours of heavy lifting a week while pondering his navel, yet with a conscience! 

His initial posts are fascinating, if not quite revealing.

If tenured law professors are averaging about an hour a day over the course of a 250-day work year on preparing for and teaching their classes, what else are they doing with their time? Most ABA-accredited law schools are units within research universities, and research universities usually have formal rules that count teaching and “research and creative work” equally in the tenure and evaluation process. In fact at the most elite universities, and to a lesser extent at the law schools within such universities, these formal rules are routinely ignored. 

Yeah, we knew that.  What makes it significant is that the anonymous author not only knows it, but is saying it loud.  So one day, law schools woke up and decided that they no longer wanted to be law schools, but rather “institutions of higher learning.” After the laughter died down, then what?

This led to changes in hiring practices — changes that were more pronounced at elite schools, but could be seen to lesser extents well down the legal academic Great Chain of Being.  It began to become common to hire entry level faculty with advanced degrees other than a JD, and to pay less attention than ever (not that much had been paid in the past) to whether entry level hires had practiced much law.  More attention was paid to whether candidates had published something, and to whether they supposedly had “scholarly potential.” 


Again, all this was much more pronounced the higher one went in the hierarchy, but, in a development that has had enormous economic consequences for the latest generations of law students, a very large number of law schools decided that, if the Harvard Law School was going to start acting more like the Harvard history department, then the Pretty Good Law School in Flyover Country was going to start acting more like the Harvard Law School.

So law schools at the bottom of the barrel wanted to be more like Harvard?  And that’s bad why?  The anonymous lawprof begins the  second part of his expose with this line:

In my previous post, I discussed some of the reasons why so much legal education is both a practical and intellectual waste of time.

A strong statement, but, frankly, not quite how the initial post came off.  Where’s the beef?

I didn’t touch on some related issues, such as the fact that most law faculty have had literally no classroom teaching experience before they become “law professors,” that they get no training or real guidance in regard to what they’re doing in the classroom at any point in their careers, and that many of the traditional methods of law school teaching, in particular cold-calling students in order to require them to participate in a pseudo-Socratic dialogue, are simply idiotic (if research into education methods has established anything, it has proven that fear is a powerful impediment to learning).

Now we’re talking.  Of course, this isn’t quite a revelation, that lawprofs aren’t really teachers any more than that law schools see teaching as that nasty thing they have to do between writing brilliant multi-disciplinary tomes of great scholarly depth.  Yet, where’s the scam part?

Of course some law professors will swear they dedicate far more time to teaching than this. Some of them are even telling the truth (How much this benefits their students is another question, given that ever-more exquisite elaborations of doctrinal niceties soon reach a pedagogical point of sharply diminishing returns).  But others are “dedicating” a good deal less.  Some professors who have taught exactly the same classes for a decade or two do essentially no preparation any more.  They are like the most burnt out teachers at your high school, if you went, as I did, to a middling-quality public school. But with this difference: the most burnt-out teachers at your high school still had to stick around at work for seven or eight hours a day. Also, they didn’t get paid $200,000 (or even quite a bit more) per year. And needless to say you didn’t have pay $50,000 a year for the privilege of being exposed to their talents.

Bingo.  Over the years I’ve been writing Simple Justice, I’ve dedicated a small portion of my posts to the failure of law school to fulfill what would appear to be its basic function, to produce students prepare to be lawyers. I’ve addressed the utterly astounding salaries given academics, largely out of jealousy, but also because somebody has to put up the money to fund their penmanship.  And I’ve ridiculed (some say harshly) the disconnect between their unquenchable thirst for the killer theoretical law review article that not only changes the entire course of jurisprudence, but is cited 12 times by the Supreme Court.

I’ve hurt the feelings of a few lawprofs along the way, who tell me that I’m very mean to them.  I don’t mean to be, though my language is not of the sort heard in the hushed marble hallways of the Academy, where never is heard an unequivocal word.  Seriously, they don’t like the criticism coming from practicing lawyers.  Also seriously, many of the lawprofs I’ve come to know are incredibly smart people with the potential to make significant contributions to the law and people’s lives.  If only they focused their energies on something useful.

Law students (just to be balanced) haven’t been ignored either, as the smart, tough, realistic young lawyer has given way to the whiny, fragile teacup, who can no longer be questioned or challenged for fear it will negatively impact their self-esteem.  If you wonder why some new lawyers can’t bear up to pressure or conceive of a cogent argument, it’s because they’re treated like Chia pets in law school.

While the anonymous lawprof has yet to give up any really nasty secrets, or actually come out and say anything that hasn’t been strewn across the internet before, he has done something that we rarely get to see:  Confess to the known crimes of the academy.  That’s a start.

Keep an eye on Inside the Law School Scam, as there may be revelations yet.  And even if not, his recognition of the problems that compel discussion and redress may prove to be the start of a beautiful solution.  As he offers in his  post discussing Elena Kagan (who never stepped foot in a courtroom until she was appointed Solicitor General):

Someone should inscribe the phrase Fake It Till You Make It (in classical Latin naturally) on the façade of Harvard’s fancy new law building – and on that of every law school in America.

That explains an awful lot about the state of the law, and may be the most revealing, and important, thing exposed.

6 thoughts on “Law School Undressed

  1. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, good-morning.
    I’d swear that he’s/she’s been a long time reader of SJ and just now decided to grow an anonymous pair. Maybe he/she will out themselves once retired.

    *I wonder if you could save a portion of the industry by opening up the Greenfield After Law School Special. Comprised of one or two classes, in which those enrolled in ‘So you Wanna Be A Real CDL 101’ are de-brainwashed and re-trained, with SJ a required reading. The taxpayers would love it & Divorce Lawyers would be free to represent divorcees. Thanks.

  2. SHG

    Unless one is in the witness protection program or Club Ned, I don’t think it’s possible to grow an anonymous pair.

  3. Jim Chen

    Scott, you’ve always been free to post on MoneyLaw. I’m just too flustered to update the lousy sidebar! Come on in and let ‘er rip sometime.


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