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Monday, January 09, 2012

Final Thoughts on the AALS Conference, and "Failing Law Schools"

Any time an issue produces a measure of detente between folks who often otherwise disagree, if only on matters of "tone," it's worth revisiting.  Let me offer a couple of concluding thoughts on the AALS annual conference.

1) Although I surely poked fun at the AALS conference, I do not object to its sheer existence, whether during economic booms or busts, and whether it is seen as a "bacchanal" or not.  Annual gatherings of a business, trade, or profession, or a sector of a profession are common across the board and, for a nation of joiners, as American as apple pie.  The AHA held its annual conference this weekend, and it probably offers its graduate students even fewer and worse prospects (although not the same debtload!).  We are also scholars and teachers, so I also don't object to panels that discuss matters far afield from current economic issues in the profession and the academy, including legal doctrine and theory.  My view was not that the conference is somehow itself wrong (although it could be better, every year that I've attended save the ones where I've spoken), but that it is a waste of an opportunity to gather so many members of the legal academy together under the same roof and not devote more time to the concerns with legal education that have been discussed here and many other places.  (Incidentally, that was my point about protest.  I was neither encouraging it nor mocking it.  Some commenters elsewhere have insisted that protests are urgently necessary.  If they were serious about it, I wanted to point out that this would have been a good time for it, and that protests are, after all, not uncommon at the AALS.  [One commenter on another blog also more or less encouraged killing law professors.  That's the kind of comment, at least, that can reasonably be deleted, no?])  

2) It has been fairly observed -- including by me -- that the AALS definitely did more this year than it has in many past years to address these issues.  That's to its credit.  

But I continue to think more could have been done (obviously, since I helped propose one more such session), and that some issues could have been addressed more directly.  Without wanting to get hyperbolic about it, I was also disappointed by some of the public comments of some of the leading figures in and around the AALS about both the conference and the state of law schools and law students today.  I don't think a non-stop rending of garments is required, and I absolutely encourage people to examine and critique the claims of critics of legal education, not just to join some Kumbayah bandwagon.  I just don't happen to agree that there's "never been a better time to apply to law school," or that the fact that "it has never been easier or cheaper to borrow money to pay for law school" is all to the good.  I did hear from one friend that, in that person's view, some of the panels devoted to relevant issues skirted the edges of the real issues but didn't really get to their core.  I was unexpectedly ill and couldn't attend very much this week, so perhaps some commenters can weigh in on what they thought of the relevant panels.

3) Like Dean Rodriguez, I thought many of the things that Judge Cabranes said about law school reform at his luncheon address were fairly subject to criticism.  (I don't agree with everything Dan said, I should note.  But a good deal of it seemed right to me.)  That said, I was still pleased by his speech, which if nothing else did a nice job of twitting sensibilities and serving, almost literally, as a kind of skull-at-the-banquet moment.  About the only decent thing worth reading in The Fountainhead is the bit about Dominique Francon's habit of giving Speech A to Group B, and Speech B to Group A, instead of telling each group what it wants and expects to hear.  Judge Cabranes definitely did not give Speech A to Group A.  It was surely worth reminding some members of the audience that they are closer to the 1% than the 99%, and more insiders than outsiders.  I thought Cabranes's reform suggestions weren't necessarily the right ones, but I still enjoyed the general and highly visible wrinkling of noses during his speech, as if a skunk had been made the guest of honor at a garden party.   

Let me add one other thing.  In the last couple of weeks I've had the pleasure of reading a manuscript version of Brian Tamanaha's forthcoming book, "Failing Law Schools."  I commend it to everyone interested in these issues, which at the least should include everyone working in the legal academy and many others besides.  Its "tone" is fervent at the beginning and end, and driven throughout the book, but it is also rigorously focused on the facts and avoids speculation on motives and so on.  There are some writers (and I don't have the usual suspect in mind at this moment) who, when I read them, I find it necessary to strip away all the adjectives and adverbs before I can evaluate whether there is any substance or value in what they have to say; Tamanaha has already mostly done that job for me in his own writing.  I don't agree with everything Brian has to say!  Again, no matter how important some of these issues may be, it is entirely proper to disagree about them and to continue to analyze them rather than joining some amen corner.  But he lays out the facts very well and offers many sound conclusions.  

One of the most important arguments he presses, in my view, is that one set of standards or reforms does not fit all.  There is and should be room for diversity in a variety of aspects of how law schools structure themselves, including tuition, curriculum, how many years the law degree takes, and the balance of tenured and untenured faculty.  Accreditation standards can serve a purpose: after all, we have a professional duty toward future clients as well as students.  But they should allow for experimentation and not serve as a cost-raising straitjacket that ends up in an expensive standardized model.  That discussion alone makes the book worth the price, in my view.  It will be out this spring and I'm happy to recommend it to readers.         

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 9, 2012 at 08:43 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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It is good to know that Tamanaha is publishing a book on this topic. I do not always agree with him, but he has many good ideas.

And the comment about celebrating the killing of law professors and deans and firebombing law schools-- which would injure students,too-- is still up. Actually, the point is reiterated in a second post encouraging volunteers to do the deed.

Posted by: BH | Jan 9, 2012 11:23:26 AM

I wish there was a conference where unemployed and indebted law graduates could assemble. It's funny how the world works - the victims generally never have the money to do such things.

Posted by: anon | Jan 9, 2012 4:20:51 PM

Professor Tamahana apparently says that new lawyers cannot afford to go to underserved communities, because the market there doesn't pay enough. I disagree. I live in Canada, and many underserved communities are thriving areas enjoying the resource boom. But they are up north, and so many lawyers - new and not-so-new - don't want to go there.

I also know of many lawyers who don't want to change their practice to fit market demand, which means they can't get the work and can't get the income.

Posted by: Stanley | Feb 24, 2012 9:25:47 AM

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