Friday, December 28, 2012

The case against law schools

Several readers called my attention to the fact that Paul Campos has finally offered a "shorter Paul Campos," i.e., an 'executive summary' of what he's apparrently been blogging about to the tune of hundreds of posts and hundreds of thousands of words for the past 15 months, during which time other law professors might have chosen to do some actual work.  It provides a useful occasion to sort the wheat from the chaff, or the substance from the utter nonsense, emanating from Campos and others in cyberspace.   So here we go with Campos's "executive summary":

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.  -- Upton Sinclair --

This is why your law school charges what it charges.  This is why your professors believe sincerely in the “value proposition” of what they have to offer.  This is why nothing ever changes, until it does.

The famous Upton Sinclair quote has many applications, but it doesn't explain the things that Campos suggests it does.  Law schools charge what they charge because the market can bear it.  Now that the market can not bear it, law schools are effectively cutting tuition by offering discounts and more financial aid.   I assume some professors believe that they are providing value because they are, through their teaching and scholarly work.  Some professors, like Campos, obviously aren't, and perhaps they are motivated by a kind of self-interested self-deception to believe otherwise.  The last sentence--"This is why nothing ever changes, until it does"--is a non-sequitur on the preceding points.

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.  -- Herbert Stein --

When the price of something increases and its value decreases, at some point people will not pay for that thing any longer.

That's true, which is why, as just noted, law schools are now effectively cutting tuition, and why, as we have noted before, many law schools will contract and some may even close.

Debts that can’t be repaid won’t be.  -- Michael Hudson --

That someone lends you money does not mean there is a reasonable probability that you will be able to repay that money.  It only means that someone is making money from loaning you money.

This is almost right:  the key fact is that the loans for higher education are backed by the federal government.  Under those conditions, the observation holds.

Your odds of finishing in the top ten percent of your class are ten percent.

Working harder than everybody else is not a plan if everybody else has the same plan.

This would only be true if class rank were assigned randomly.  In fact, your odds of finishing in the top ten percent of the class may be much higher or much lower depending on your academic peer group at the school you attend.  Someone who gets into Yale, but decides to go to Colorado is going to finish in the top ten percent of the class if they do the work.  It is fair to say that having the same plan as everyone else is not a good plan if those against whom you are competing have a similar skill set coming in. 

There is no such thing as international law.

Or environmental law. Or human rights law. Or sports law.  Basic rule: If some form of legal practice sounds interesting to non-lawyers, it does not exist.

This is obviously silly, since, in fact, lawyers work in all these areas.  Perhaps what is meant is that one should not go to a law school simply because it advertises a specialty in one of those areas, and without regard for its overall reputation, and that is probably correct, but then that's what he should have said.

The only reason to go to law school is to be a lawyer.

A law degree is not versatile.  Non-legal employers don’t like to hire lawyers, because for among other reasons they believe, correctly, that law school has not prepared people to do something other than practice law. (It hasn't done that either but whatever).

Certainly the best reason to go to law school is to become a lawyer, but it's not the only reason.  What the facts are about the versatility of a law degree is a worthy question, but Campos has no information on this score.  I've known JDs both here and at Texas who went into consulting firms by choice, not by necessity, and where the JD was an essential credential, though they weren't doing primarily legal work.  What we need to know is whether this is common or uncommon.

Three years is a long time when you’re 22.

This means that if you can’t get a real job as a lawyer then law school costs far too much even if it’s “free.”

Hard to argue with that, but the key factor is whether or not the law school in question delivers good employment outcomes for its graduates.  Some do, and some do not. 

People who aren’t lawyers don’t know much about being lawyers.

This group includes your professors.

True to form, Campos returns to projecting his own failings on to his colleagues.  Reading Campos, you would not know that many law professors actually practice law (at Texas, close to half the faculty was engaged in some kind of legal practice for some portion of the year, the percentage is smaller here, but that's because of the institutional culture, not competence), and that even those who do not practice typically know an enormous amount about the practice of law because of their work with continuing legal education and their ties to their former students.  To be sure, Campos, who earned tenure with such gems as "That Obscure Object of Desire: Hermeneutics and the Autonomous Legal Text," probably hasn't a clue what lawyers do. 

Spent money is gone.

It’s never too soon to fold a busted hand.

Useless advice, unless one has a clear notion of what counts as "a busted hand."  It's one thing to drop out after a semester, but someone who has gone through two years of law school probably ought to get a degree for his or her efforts.  But no generic form of advice on this score can be meaningful.

Having no good options does not make law school a good option.

But isn’t it pretty to think so?

I suppose this is just a variation of "Don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer."

It's hard to believe that all of Campos's blog blather amounts to so little, but it's his executive summary.

Two or three times over the last year I've gotten an e-mail from a reader of Campos who thinks that the poster boy for post-tenure review is actually doing something worthwhile.  This is representative (I omit the sender's name):


        I read your criticisms of Prof. Campos.  Do you really think law school is still worth it, especially         at any school lower than Top-25?

I suggest you read the following:

There are real people and lives at stake.

Thank you for reading.

I replied as follows, which will make a suitable conclusion to this post:

Dear Mr. [name omitted],

Before you write to someone, you really should read what they have written so you understand their position, rather than imputing a fictional one to them.  Try this to start:

I’m glad Paul Campos--who is a notorious charlatan and self-promoter who cares not one whit about you or anyone else--shifted gears from where he started in August 2011, when he ranted about lazy professors [like him] and lousy scholars [like him]; now he actually posts some useful information about the job market, but that was partly because I (and others) called him out on his nonsense at the start.  The real question is, if he actually cared, why it took him so long to post the kind of information that I, Bill Henderson, and, of course, Brian Tamanaha had been writing about for years.  And too bad he still posts a great deal of misinformation and careless analyses. 

In answer to your question, a cut-off like the one you suggest would be absurd, though it’s indicative of the misinformation Campos circulates that readers come away with such an impression.  There are “top 25” schools it would be imprudent to pay full fare for, and there are law schools outside the top 25—say, regional flagships in most states—which are worth the full in-state rate in terms of professional outcomes. 

As to the anecdote about the unemployed lawyer:  there are millions of such stories, and not just in law.  We live in a dysfunctional economic system, that disposes people like trash.  That’s not a story about law schools or law as a profession, but it is typical of Campos that he presents it as one, but he’s too stupid to do otherwise.

Best wishes,

Brian Leiter

UPDATE (12/31):  A colleague from a law school in New York writes:

You’ve been saying it in different ways for years, but for me it didn’t fully penetrate until today:  Law school pathology is a symptom of what’s wrong with the U.S. economy, not some up-from-nowhere tuition-grabbing scheme that malefactors foist on innocents.  These days, feeling so horrified by the Beltway fiscal-cliff noise that so recklessly ignores unemployment, I think Campos is no better than our swine in Congress.  He’s a courtier-jester who flatters neoliberal ideology and, by extension, the rich.  If he’s not—if he really believes there’s a nefarious plot afoot—then the only honorable course for him would be to stop cashing his cushy paycheck from this evil enterprise.  Also renounce tenure for himself.

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