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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Law School Transparency Petition

In my earlier postings about Paul Campos's blog, I said that although I had many disagreements with both what he had said and how he had said it (more on that below), we should welcome rather than disdain his willingness to write about the need for reform in legal education and about the plight of jobless law students.  If he had useful things to say, more power to him, I wrote.  I pledged that I would continue reading his blog and would happily link to any useful information or suggestions.  It required a good deal of wading through unbelievably self-serving writing, and a comments section that ranges from the genuinely useful and touching to almost absurd heights of vicious invective.  (Welcome to the blogosphere, as they say.)  I'm currently reading Alex Ross's book The Rest is Noise, a history of twentieth-century music, and the blog kept putting me in mind of Ross's descriptions of fin-de-siecle society in Vienna, in which "revolutionary gestures betray a reactionary mind-set."  

That said, I think Campos's latest post is worth looking at and considering.  In it, Campos, building on work performed by his commenters, proposes a petition for law professors to sign.  It reads:

"We, the undersigned,  believe it is imperative that all law schools provide prospective law school students with information  that will allow them to accurately assess their prospects for finding appropriate employment within the legal profession upon graduation from the schools they are considering attending. We therefore call upon the American Bar Association to require all schools it has accredited to release clear, accurate, and reasonably comprehensive information regarding graduate employment, by for example implementing the proposals outlined in Part III of the Law School Transparency Project's white paper "A Way Forward: Improving Transparency in Employment Reporting at American Law Schools" ( http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1528862 ), so that prospective students may obtain adequate information regarding their likely future employment prospects."

It provides an email address for those interested in signing the petition: lawschoolpetition@gmail.com.

I have not yet read the white paper, so I can't comment on it yet.  But it seems to me that pretty well everyone I have seen discussing these issues agrees at a minimum that law schools ought to provide clear and transparent employment data to prospective students.  Rather supporting my initial point about Campos's blog many weeks ago--that the more revolutionary one's aims, the less likely it is that anything at all will get done--some of his commenters have insisted that anything short of a total revolution in legal education is a capitulation.  But I think Campos quite rightly confines the petition to the one thing that, in general, everyone seems to agree upon.  Even those, like me, who think that students rely on a variety of sources of information besides employment statistics in brochures--including bad information, like the general cultural assumption, certainly long since outdated, that law school is a path to a guaranteed financially successful career--still believe that the information law schools provide ought to be clear and accurate.  So I think Campos has a decent shot at getting signatories for this petition, and I certainly encourage my colleagues to think about signing it.  If commenters have any useful points about the white paper or the petition in general, I welcome them.

I am not above adding that folks who visit Campos's site to look at the petition should look, while they're there, at the two posts immediately preceding that.  In one, he uses the story of a student at his school who, according to the story, committed suicide.  It's a tragic story, but Campos admits that, at best, the reasons the student committed suicide were far more complicated than anything relating to his failure to find the kind of work he wanted.  Given that, it strikes me as a pretty exploitative post--heart-felt, no doubt, but still one that trades on someone's death for the sake of a blog post.  ("But for Wales, Richard?")  Remarkably, in the comments section Campos criticizes a purported law professor for commenting anonymously on the blog.  I don't care for anonymous comments from law professors either, but of all the people in the world entitled to make this point, Campos is surely the last.  I pray it was an attempt at humor, but I found it galling no matter what.  

The other, titled "The first rule of Fight Club," is remarkable but quite characteristic of Campos's blogging.  I've argued before on this site that what's so unfortunate about Campos's blog is that what he has to say that is valuable has already been said elsewhere, and what he has to say that's attention-grabbing is often crudely exaggerated and rhetorically inflamed.  There's nothing wrong with repeating what's been said elsewhere--many people feel that the problems with legal education haven't been talked about enough or gotten enough attention--but I think there's something deeply wrong with using cheap tricks to get attention, especially when the author then repeatedly and vaguely disclaims those cheap tricks, while still employing them, leaving a residue of disgust over everything he touches.  

This post is characteristic of these tendencies.  In it, Campos casually walks back many of the silliest claims he's made, as if he weren't responsible for making them and doesn't understand why they attracted so much attention in the first place; just a poor honest workman doing his job, sadly misunderstood and attacked by his adversaries.  Compare, for instance, the Inside Higher Ed story in which he describes himself as taking a "whistle-blowing approach," and earlier posts in which he implies that his blog has led other law professors finally to pay attention to legal education issues, with his current version, in which he writes: "[I]t seems rather odd to characterize this blog as involved in any sort of real whistle blowing.  Almost everything I've said has been a matter of very public knowledge, after all."  A simple "I was wrong" would have done quite nicely, thank you.  I have read just about every word of the blog, and it is all pretty well of this character.  I understand why he has loyal followers, but as they pride themselves on their skepticism, I hope they are not afraid to cast a critical light on what he has done and continues to do, the self-serving and self-contradictory as well as the commendable.  

I consider myself entitled to raise these criticisms because, one, they're true and they're pretty well what I've been saying all along, and, two, I've kept my promise to keep reading and take seriously anything worthwhile he has to say.  I think the petition post is worthwhile; I certainly welcome substantive comments about the proposal and encourage professors to make up their own minds about signing it, as I will.  Even a wildly distasteful messenger can sometimes produce a useful message.       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 15, 2011 at 09:42 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Comments

Ok, but do you have any idea how your remarks look to the people who feel scammed by law school? These include people in genuine despair and your biggest point to make is that Campos contradicts himself as to whether or not he is a whistle-blower. You are 100% right that he did that. Is this important? How?

I guess your ultimate point is that Campos is distasteful. This is part of your larger theme that Campos is not a hero. You seem much more concerned with making that point than with addressing the plight of students and that seems petty. You really don't have any idea what law grads are going through and you show it with crap like this.

Posted by: Fred Smith | Sep 15, 2011 4:16:16 PM

(Obligatory I-am-not-a-law-professor disclaimer; it seems that anyone who disagrees with Campos or the incendiary "scam" rhetoric is automatically labeled a law professor. I'm a lawyer who is not affiliated with any law school in any way beyond "alum".)

I agree with the commenter above that Campos' back-and-forth on whether he is a "whistleblower" is fairly irrelevant.

I'm not sure I agree with you that Campos is a "wildly distasteful" messenger, but I do agree that his points are (as you put it) "crudely exaggerated and wildly inflamed." The comments section only serves to magnify the inflammation further. A key example of this was the suicide post earlier this week. As I pointed out on his blog:

"The suicide seems to me to be an inflammatory red herring, given that the post itself concedes that the suicide was "much more complicated" than Alex's inability to find a post in immigration law. In fact, the post "vagues out" whether Alex's suicide had ANYTHING to do with his career difficulties to such an extent that I'm inclined to conclude the two things may have been unrelated. (The most Campos can say is, "I don't think we helped.") I don't understand what this is supposed to mean: "...or rather I took part in a process that, it seems, led him down a path that ended in a very dark place." The post does not make clear that law school was linked to the "very dark place" in which this attorney landed. The post seems to intend that we take a leap of faith to conclude that the stresses of unemployment and inability to (immediately) pursue his professional dream led him to commit suicide ... even as it explicitly states that Campos was unable to confirm that anything remotely like that narrative occurred."

Of course, there were plenty of comments that claimed that anyone who couldn't understand that the suicide and "law school scam" were linked was obviously [pick one: insular/privileged/a law professor/deluded/someone who had never had a dream crushed]. This despite the fact that Campos had made explicit that he couldn't link the suicide to the attorney's having attended law school... thus making his use of the suicide fairly exploitative.

Campos' blog initially offered the potential to make useful, timely criticisms of the legal academy, but he instead too-often resorts to oversimplistic invective. With that said, I agree with you that this petition has some promise.

Posted by: Sigh | Sep 15, 2011 4:34:59 PM

So, are you going to sign it?

Posted by: Gilman Grundy (AKA FOARP) | Sep 15, 2011 6:17:29 PM

Mr. Smith, you're engaging in one of the unfortunately common types of anti-intellectualism: demanding that no one address any issue that you deem 'less important' until they first address the thing you want them to address.

The fact is, Campos' ethos issues are important, since many of his claims are unsupported except by his appeal to his own authority. One can obviously discuss problems in legal education without discussing Campos at all -- in fact, that would probably be the most efficient way to do so. But by inserting himself into the discussion with dubious tactics, Campos made himself -- and responses like this -- relevant.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 16, 2011 8:49:39 AM

I'm willing to grant all your objections to Prof. Campos's style.

The question remains, will you sign the petition? If not, why?

Posted by: JP59 | Sep 16, 2011 9:25:14 AM

I can think of lots of reasons for not signing. But a primary one is that some people do not sign petitions just as a matter of policy. You cannot take the refusal to sign something as evidence of lack of support for an issue.

Posted by: anonymous | Sep 16, 2011 9:39:47 AM

I don't fulfill the requirements Campos is looking for in signers. Even if I did, though, I probably wouldn't sign, precisely because of the objections to Campos' style (broadly understood). The petition is a product of his blog, and signing it is, at least in part, an endorsement of the process that created it, not just the positions it lays out.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 16, 2011 11:22:15 AM

"I can think of lots of reasons for not signing. But a primary one is that some people do not sign petitions just as a matter of policy. You cannot take the refusal to sign something as evidence of lack of support for an issue."

I posted a response a few hours ago, but it seems to have been taken down.

In any event, I think the reasons being offered for not signing are merely convenient excuses. The good that the petition promises to do far, far outweighs any harm in appearing to be inconsistent or appearing to endorse someone whom you find objectionable.

Posted by: JP59 | Sep 16, 2011 1:58:13 PM

@JP59-- you were responding to my post about there being reasons why people won't sign. Some people do not ever sign petitions. They do other things they think are more useful, or more in line with how they choose to make their feelings known. That's a matter of individual taste, and it's too much to insist that someone feel or act in just the way we think they ought to feel and act. Or, they can feel just as we think they should, but choose to act in a different way in response to those feelings. It really is up to the person to decide whether the good of anything outweighs something else they find objectionable.

Posted by: anonymous | Sep 16, 2011 2:28:04 PM

Petitions rarely do much good, precisely because they're (generally) such an inexpensive form of activism. But that means that when there are reasons to feel uncomfortable about signing a position besides the contents of the petition, those reasons will often outweigh the small marginal benefit that your single signature would bring to the cause.

But as anonymous says, it's a very individual balance.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 16, 2011 4:50:33 PM

That there are some "people who feel scammed by law school" does not mean they have actually been scammed, and so far neither Campos nor anyone else has explained why the feelings are justified. Let us see what the lawsuits against Cooley and NYLS reveal. It could turn out that all the "scam" talk is just a case of looking for someone tangible to blame for the consequences of a massive economic downturn.

Posted by: anon | Sep 16, 2011 8:03:47 PM

Horwitz can talk about Campos, I'm not saying there is nothing valuable there. I'm just saying that, in trying to size Horwitz up, he reveals his priorities with comments like this. He is perhaps marginally concerned about the plight of his students. He is quite concerned about Paul Campos being seen as a hero by law students and graduates. This is what he wants to spend the most time talking about. I've yet to see him address the issue of debt. What is the average debt for a student at Alabama and what sort of jobs are they getting to service that debt? Maybe one day he'll discuss it, but I doubt it. I'll repeat what somebody in Campos' comments said the other day. Campos is our man because he's the guy who bothered to start the blog. It could have been Horwitz, it could have been you. We want to see law professors taking seriously the scope of the situation and so far there is only one guy doing that. It isn't Horwitz.

Posted by: Fred Smith | Sep 17, 2011 6:19:28 PM

My view is that it's just an awfully risky move to attend Alabama Law, or any non-top 20 law school, these days. And I am not a law professor.

Posted by: Asher | Sep 17, 2011 7:05:16 PM

First off, Fred, Campos isn't the only guy doing it. Brian Tamanaha has pretty much said everything that Campos has said, but much more eloquently and without smearing colleagues or exploiting the death of any of his students. It's also a little rich for a guy who practiced law for only one year and is primarily known as an "expert" in obesity to lecture other law profs on how to do their jobs. I'm guessing that's what many law professors find so off-putting about Campos.

One thing that I think we can all agree on is that prospective law students need to think seriously about amassing too much debt. Alabama Law tuition is just over $18,000 for Alabama residents, which strikes me as pretty good value compared to many other schools out there.

Posted by: JJ | Sep 17, 2011 8:05:44 PM

It's a bit silly, I think, to claim that the number of blog posts someone writes about an issue is directly related to how much they care about it.

Even assuming a perfectly rational actor, there are plenty of factors besides the importance of the issue that go into topic choices. On the cost side, you have the amount of research that goes into writing an informed post (high, for writing about law school's structural issues; low, for writing about Campos' blogging) and the amount that needs to be said about an issue to give it full treatment (similarly high and low). On the benefits side, you have the potential effect that your writing will have in the direction you prefer, scaled by the amount you care about the issue. There's also the problem of different options for action: there are other ways than blogging that law professors can act on structural concerns, but blogging is almost certainly the best way to respond to bad blogging.

I'm not going to try to defend or explain any other blogger's habits in choosing topics. But "You blog more about A than B, therefore you care more about A than B" is overly simplistic to the point of meaninglessness.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 17, 2011 8:06:29 PM

Horwitz, do you have any shame with all this comment deletion? The discussion above looks absolutely nothing like it would had you allowed everyone to talk.

Posted by: anon | Sep 17, 2011 11:20:56 PM

I delete comments, especially on posts like this one, to allow for criticism, especially of me, and keep invective and backbiting to a minimum, especially when I don't have time to police things every minute. I'm sorry if it displeases you but I consider it necessary.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 18, 2011 12:46:28 AM

You can't silence us forever. At some point, the gravy train that's kept you and your ilk fat and happy will dry up. And then where will you be?

Posted by: Dumpy | Sep 18, 2011 1:02:02 AM

Writing a blog, I suppose. And still. Editing. Comments. If you don't care for my policy, well, it's a bib blogospere--although I can think of other blogs where purportedly unmoderated comments have left the place a wreck where serious discussion is even less likely. I'm not trying to be rude about it, but it's my blog and my policy. You are welcome to start your own. I stand by my criticisms of Campos, who richly deserves them and hasn't rebutted them; I am still, as this post shows, willing to help convey useful info to others even when it comes from him; and I still insist on civility and a minimum of comes-the-revolution hyperbole and nastiness, even when that means deleting comments. I know our regular readers will understand.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 18, 2011 1:11:40 AM

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