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Friday, March 28, 2014

What is/should be a law student?

Some (a lot?  most?) of the criticism of law professors and law schools comes from current or ex law students who feel cheated or duped.  While some of this criticism is valid, much of it ignores the fact that professors and schools exist in a larger system, in which all parties are complicit in the system's failures.  Actual and potential law students are arguably the most powerful parties in this system: they can bring it down by refusing to enter it, and they can change it by voting with their feet and dollars.  For example, if they want an inexpensive education, they can go to their own state's school--or even to my institution, the University of North Dakota, which is an absolute bargain even for out-of-staters and provides a great education.  If all they want is a steady paycheck, even in times of recession, the New York Times just the other day recommended a pretty lucrative and stable career in plumbing.  And no, I'm not insulting plumbers--when the apocalypse comes, they'll be more immediately valuable than most attorneys.

I still think the law is a great, important, and fun career--if you're willing to work hard and are 100% sure it's what you want to do. With that in mind, I want to pose the question: what is/should be a law student?  Students are consumers, of course, but not traditional ones, since the more they work the more they get their money's worth.  Law school is, perhaps, like a buffet restaurant.  You pay an entrance fee and in exchange you don't get any benefit, but you get the opportunity to enjoy a lot of different benefits.  No one forces you to eat at any one buffet--before you choose one, you may want to see if it has any health code violations and if previous diners were satisfied with their meal.  And once you decide and put down your money, it's up to you to select from the buffet.  No one is going to spoon feed you (or just teach you the "black letter law" in a year and send you on your way).  No one is going to force you to go back for seconds (or seek out professors outside of class for discussions, mentorship, advice on jobs, etc.).  Heck, the restaurant will let you just drink water (or just attend class and call it a day).  Is it the restaurant's fault if you choose not to eat?

Sometimes it is.  If the restaurant (law school) guarantees a full belly (a misleading post-graduate job placement rate), that's a problem.  Just as often, however, actual law students get out of school what they put into it.  And few law schools falsely advertise their wares, but potential students buy into a myth they heard from other, unreliable sources.  So what is/should be a law student?  How about this for starters: 

  • A well informed, intelligent agent who can make informed choices prior to entering law school regarding debt load, job prospects, and the like
  • A student who is actively engaged in class work, extracurricular activities, networking, skills building, etc.  A student, in short, who takes ownership of her education and uses the school, the faculty, and their resources to self-direct her career

Posted by Steven R. Morrison on March 28, 2014 at 12:26 PM | Permalink


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"While some of this criticism is valid, much of it ignores the fact that professors and schools exist in a larger system, in which all parties are complicit in the system's failures. "

Oh? Do law students mention a high GPA, while actually computing it only
from courses which they did well?

"Actual and potential law students are arguably the most powerful parties in this system: they can bring it down by refusing to enter it, and they can change it by voting with their feet and dollars. "

One of the points well-established by the scambloggers is that law
schools work very hard to bring in students, by extremely dishonest
and unethical actions.

Posted by: Barry | Mar 28, 2014 12:32:41 PM

Law students are fungible marks, with a signature. If you believe anything else, Professor Morrison, you either haven't been at this very long or haven't yet been involved in making the sausage.

Law schools promise full bellies, and deliver indigestion and distention. When sued for their "puffery", they actually raise the defense that students should have been more sophisticated consumers. After all, gruel and sawdust are kinds of consumables. Don't blame us, you should have done your homework. Welcome to the law, graduate. You just learned an important lesson about "thinking like a lawyer" that you couldn't have learned in class.

Posted by: Jojo | Mar 28, 2014 1:30:22 PM

Challenge for Jojo:

Use metaphor that doesn't involve food or digestion.

(It's time to expand your repertoire, friend.)

Posted by: Dalvino | Mar 28, 2014 1:34:36 PM

Dalvino, Prof. Morrison used the restaurant analogy, so it seemed appropriate. I have problems with faculty calling a bunch of youngsters who are fairly naive "consumers" or to celebrating the power they have in the arrangement. It's really blaming the victim. Most students do not even know the cost of law school, as it is debt funded. They pay with other peoples' fake money, and only get the bill six months after graduation.

North Dakota is rare in that it is among the only places that are economically growing and that isn't saturated with lawyers.

The lawyer glut is a problem. A very big problem. Demand is down, and technological changes (forms, coding algorithms, LPOs) foreshadow decreased demand in the future. The only way to right the ship is for supply to decline. That would have happened long ago if debt was capped, but it isn't. No lender save the federal government would allow law students to undertake the debt burden that they do. That's very troubling as the debt has consequences, and they are only experience after graduation. The risk of default is remote to the law schools, who get nothing but upside from the arrangement.

Faculty can help this and can help their students. I know many of you care about your kids, and please continue to do so. You can help your kids by closing some schools. Please help them.

Posted by: Jojo | Mar 28, 2014 1:50:13 PM

Yay, Jojo! You did it.

Must say that the nautical turn was a bit . . . um . . . predictable. But still: Gold star for meeting this challenge head on.

For what little it's worth (read: nothing), I agree with you about the need for contraction / closings / whatever. But in this tedious game of law school chicken, who moves first?

Posted by: Dalvino | Mar 28, 2014 2:09:01 PM

Interesting question but the framing of law students as arguably the most powerful actors in the system is unserious at best.

Moreover, the proffered answer amounts to "someone who pays me."

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Mar 28, 2014 2:10:08 PM


Everyone moves first. Push for lending reform from the dept of ed, such as that mentioned by Sen Harkin yesterday. Refuse to let the ABA become complicit in this and maintain high accreditation standards and bar passage standards.

Tight lending, plus high standards means no one plays chicken. Everyone tightens belts and tries to hang in there until they can't. Some then close, and the remaining schools and the remaining graduates are better off.

Posted by: Jojo | Mar 28, 2014 2:14:45 PM

One friendly addendum, Jojo?

Could we agree to uncouple the discussion of pedagogical / curricular reform from the discussion of overproduction of JDs? Both worthy discussions (though not, in my book, equally so), but not the same discussion -- and it's both pernicious and destructive that the two get so often conflated.

Not saying that you've done so here. You haven't. But still a point worth making -- or two worth discussing separately, as it were . . .

Posted by: Dalvino | Mar 28, 2014 2:22:43 PM

I think they go hand in hand. Curricular reform is window dressing necessary because of the changes in the profession and oversupply. If there were only 10,000 graduates per year, no one would care.

On curricular reform: is there anyone who believes that the Langdellian model is the only way to train new lawyers? For the majority of American history, lawyers apprenticed and learned by doing. I rather enjoyed law school, and felt that I learned things in almost all of my classes (a few were useless, but the overwhelming majority had good lessons, some of which I continue to use). That said, it was a very inefficient way to learn lessons, and after the first year, the benefit from the Socratic method falls through the floor. American legal education is very different from that in other countries, and far removed from the work of lawyers. It is too long, too impractical, too inefficient and too expensive. The economics of it favor economies of scale, hence the large output.

If I were on the ABA and didn't have interest groups, funding, the establishment, etc. to worry about, the ideal system would be for the first year to remain largely the same, but with more research and writing. Classes would be capped to 30 students, and faculty would be encouraged (read: forced) to lecture on the first year curriculum (plus corporations, evidence, and crimpro) PLUS assign writing -- lots of writing. Writing everything. There would be less (but still some) socratic lecturing on policy etc., and there would be a hell of a lot of black letter and writing. Think barbri on steroids. And there would be overlap among subjects as in real life. Procedure and substance unified: crimlaw and evidence, torts and civpro, contracts and drafting.

What would give? Traditional scholarship. Law professors would be so busy lecturing and grading, that there would be little time for law reviews. Many would still exist, but I'd think they'd drop from numbering in the thousands to numbering in the scores.

Posted by: Jojo | Mar 28, 2014 2:41:56 PM


So I take it that you don't think I should sign up for a class in writing traditional legal scholarship about ponies and German philosophers. But it gets such good student reviews.


Posted by: Dalvino | Mar 28, 2014 3:51:46 PM

"North Dakota is rare in that it is among the only places that are economically growing and that isn't saturated with lawyers. "

This has been covered by Krugman; the 'boom' in North Dakota
is a 'boom' because North Dakota has a very low population
(699,628, or one medium-sized city). A small absolute number
will yield a large percentage increase. This means that
the absolute number of new law jobs will be small, as well.
BTW, the current size of the ND Bar is 2,400.

Steven, the reason that so many law students feel cheated and duped is that they were.

Posted by: Barry | Mar 28, 2014 4:15:09 PM

Are we just going to completely ignore the pertinent differences between tenured law professors and law students? Particularly at one of the lower ranked schools that comes in for the most criticism?

On the one hand we have professors that have been through an extremely tough tournament process to secure their jobs -- overwhelming from the highest ranked law schools, which in turn implies very high median LSATs. They are significantly older, whiter and more male than their students. Significantly more likely to be from a wealthier socioeconomic class than their students. Significantly less likely to be first generation that went to college than their students. Vastly more likely to be financially sophisticated, and to understand the ins-and-outs of any contracts they sign.

The power imbalance you are trying to sell ignores reality.

In my experience, law professors tend to be a fairly left wing (for the US) bunch. So how come when it comes to justifying the status quo in the legal profession they all start to sound like a bunch of 18 year old freshman boys from the College Republican Club who can't wait to tell you about Atlas Shrugged?
"Let the buyer beware"
"The market decides what we get paid"
"No one's holding a gun to their heads"

Posted by: classof03 | Mar 28, 2014 5:19:16 PM

I like the buffet analogy! In the law school buffet, 30 to 70 percent of diners get salmonella. It's a new strain of salmonella, the kind that leaves you in serious and undischargeable debt. The buffet owners, however, claim that 1) there's no such thing as salmonella; 2) salmonella is not that bad, given that new antibiotics are on the way; and 3) salmonella is to blame on the individual diners who get it.

The buffet owners then acknowledge that rumors of salmonella are a problem, and have commissioned a study on how to move their dishes around in order to minimize it.

Posted by: Master Analogist | Mar 28, 2014 8:30:42 PM

A resident of North Dakota borrowing the full cost of attendance to attend UND is going to owe $90k at 6%+ upon graduation. A non-resident of North Dakota borrowing the full cost of attendance to attend UND is going to owe $90k at 6%+ upon graduation. From the 25th to the 75th percentile among the half of UND's recent graduates that actually report salaries, $44k to $55k is their best-case outcome for this investment.

A law student should be someone who realizes that paying sticker price almost anywhere for a JD is the mark of an idiot. Fortunately for you and unfortunately for them, there are still tens of thousands who don't realize this.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Mar 28, 2014 11:38:31 PM

"Most students do not even know the cost of law school, as it is debt funded."

I can understand being overly optimistic, and wrongly thinking you can pay down the debt you incur (and with that excessive optimism fed and encouraged by law schools), but I can't understand someone enrolling in a three year, expensive, program, who doesn't understand the initial cost and the greater cost after taking into account opportunity cost and interest.

I'm also going to say, that if are either too lazy or too intellectually limited to sort out a figure as simple as the cost before taking out huge loans, you really are not the kind of person who ought to be given the rather serious responsibility for other people's lives that comes with being a practicing lawyer. Law is not an occupation for people who want to be spoon fed or who need others to solve problems for them.

None of this is to defend the behavior of law schools, especially the lower ranked ones, who have been predatory in some of their practices. In fact, that they are taking people in who cannot figure out what law school costs indicates that they have failed in their role of protecting the public from students who will become incompetent lawyers.

Posted by: Aged Lawyer | Mar 29, 2014 12:28:41 AM

This post seems like good evidence of how even well-meaning professors can be blind to the faults of the institution that employs them.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 29, 2014 9:17:40 AM

I think you're underestimating the deceptiveness of the emails that law school admissions offices send out in their desperate attempts to jack up the number of applications. Here's part of one I received in December:

"Students that enroll at Elon Law flourish in our student-focused environment, characterized by small classes, outstanding and accessible faculty, a nationally recognized student-attorney mentoring program and numerous leadership and practice-oriented learning opportunities.
I encourage you to apply to Elon University School of Law to enjoy the benefits of a highly-personalized, highly-engaged, outcomes-oriented legal education that is part a world-class university and located in the legal hub of central North Carolina."

That from a school at which 47% of the graduates ended up in long-term, full-time jobs where someone else paid them to be a lawyer, and 24% of the graduates were completely unemployed at the 9-month mark.

I used to also think that this was the fault of prospective students who don't do their research. But going through the process has completely changed my mind. Outright lies about employment statistics are probably rare. But law schools of that type are trying to sell a lie to prospective students: that it makes sense to graduate with over $200k in debt in exchange for such a small shot at actually being a lawyer, and probably basically no chance of getting the type of job that would allow you to pay off that level of debt.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 29, 2014 9:31:43 AM

Dan & Prawfs: the number of truly stupid comments on threads here is increasing exponentially. I for one would appreciate some more active moderation. I think others would too. You're going to start losing readers.

Posted by: please | Mar 29, 2014 11:11:45 AM

I don't see any deceptiveness in that email from Elon, Andrew. It seems apparent that they are touting the quality of the three-year law school experience. I don't see how anyone with a college education could read that particular email and think, "Elon promised me a good job when I graduate."

Before I went to law school, I did a lot of research on job placement, legal opportunities, and the true cost of a large debt load. I made an informed decision, worked hard in law school, and am now a practitioner in pretty much exactly the position I anticipated ex ante. I must admit to having minimal sympathy for anyone who is unable to do the same, especially in the current market where there is more information than ever about the risks associated with a legal eduction.

Posted by: anon | Mar 29, 2014 11:15:21 AM

@anon: "practice-oriented," "outcomes-oriented," etc? I don't think it's reasonable to read the email as not claiming it's not a good value as a professional school. And I don't mean to be signaling out a specific school. The point is that this isn't especially bad: I literally used the first email I opened up.

I agree that it's hard to feel bad for people who don't do the research, especially as it becomes easier to do. A certain kind of person would say, I suppose, that it's students' own fault for being tricked. But I don't think that describes most law professors, at least when it comes to institutions that they're not invested in. These schools are targeting the least sophisticated segment of the applicant pool, and advertising in a way that demonstrates a commitment to maximizing revenues rather than helping the students they say they care about to make smart decisions.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 29, 2014 1:42:18 PM

"Dan & Prawfs: the number of truly stupid comments on threads here is increasing exponentially. I for one would appreciate some more active moderation. I think others would too. You're going to start losing readers."

This man is right! These posters probably do not have tenure, and therefore should not be able to speak freely on academic blogs! You need tenure protection to speak freely about pressing contemporary issues, and these posters have not demonstrated that they have it.

Posted by: Master Analogist | Mar 29, 2014 2:24:10 PM

"While some of this criticism is valid, much of it ignores the fact that professors and schools exist in a larger system, in which all parties are complicit in the system's failures."

Prof. Morrison, students are not willingly "complicit" in the system's failure any more than any other victim is. Schools squeal like stuck pigs every time the ABA Legal Education Committee threatens to take the lumber to schools, and then urge pro-school changes. Don't believe me? (See 10 month rather than 9 month reporting requirements; the death of real bar passage accreditation standards; the new 10% no LSAT proposal; the lobbying for transfer student LSAT disclosure.)

Exactly zero (nada, zilch, none) of those changes are made with the interest of students in mind. It's a bunch of rent seekers getting theirs on the backs of the young. That's why everyone's so angry! To the scam-bloggers and would be reformers, this is a moral fight. Please recognize that, even if you disagree with it.

Posted by: Jojo | Mar 29, 2014 5:26:15 PM

Law schools need to hire profesaors who have actually been lawyers and don't look down on lawyers.

Posted by: anon | Mar 29, 2014 11:59:11 PM

Law schools may be engaged in deceptive advertising, but the Elon example from Andrew MacKie-Mason doesn't count in my opinion. I suppose it should say that students MAY flourish, but even flourishing is such a vague word. There are no promises of big salaries or even jobs.

The scam, as I understand it, is that law schools were inflating their job placements by flat out lying about how many students were in long-term, JD required placements. In response, law schools are now required to provide more granular data about which jobs are long term (vs. short term), which are JD required (vs. JD advantaged or not required at all), and who is paying their salary. None of this will stop blatant lying but it should provide students with more useful data.

Of course, if they are sold only by the promise of flourishing in a "student-focused environment, characterized by small classes, outstanding and accessible faculty, a nationally recognized student-attorney mentoring program and numerous leadership and practice-oriented learning opportunities", there's little that anyone can do to help them.

Posted by: teacher | Mar 30, 2014 1:43:25 PM


At its pre-2008 peak, the scam worked like this. Law schools could count upon prospective students mainly looking at things like U.S. News and school pamphlets for information, with very little critical perspective offered from individuals or entities who weren't stakeholders in a prospective student's decision to attend law school. If law students knew lawyers, those lawyers were mostly graduates from the '70s and '80s, when tuition was cheap in real dollars and competition for entry-level positions was far less stringent. This allowed law schools to aggregate their employment information into two basic numbers: the employment rate at nine months past graduation, and the median starting salary.

Most law schools had employment rates approaching if not exceeding 90%, with median starting salaries well in excess of similar figures for BAs/BSs. How they got there was the problem. For the employment rate, law schools could and would count any job reported as employment, whether the JD could have gotten the job with their education (e.g., Cravath) or without (e.g., Starbucks). For the median starting salary, law schools had to go by whatever was reported or else fill in the blank when they knew a firm job was paying market - which meant that the median starting salary was typically based on a highly unrepresentative sample of the class which had gotten the sort of jobs for which people might rationally borrow $100k+ to attend law school. So people attended law school thinking that the median graduate of most law schools should have no problem getting a job in the law or something similarly remunerative, because how else could the employment rate and median starting salary be so high? They wouldn't lie or exaggerate, right? They're not just lawyers; they're educators!

This, by the way, is the problem I have with Prof. Morrison hand-waving the massive ethical fault members of most law faculties share in their less fortunate students' outcomes. If state bars treated law professors and administrators like ordinary lawyers and law students like any other paying clients, law professors and administrators would be ethically bound to disclose any information relevant to their students' decision to retain their services, i.e., attend law school. On that basis, most law professors and administrators at most law schools could not possibly meet any reasonable standard of care or loyalty to their prospective students, based on deceptive advertising of employment outcomes. This is not a problem confined to a few bottom-feeders, but was in fact endemic to most law schools who chose not to volunteer all that they knew or should have known.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Mar 30, 2014 10:07:33 PM

Long time reader, first time commenter. I happen to be a (tenured) law professor, and I believe strongly that nothing in these comments warrants moderation. If one chooses to take up the issue of the value of legal education, one should not be surprised to read comments on the value of legal education.

I commend Professor Morrison for moving the ball forward in his post and for allowing a free discussion in the comments. Other threads have included comments employing useless rhetoric, not adding to the conversation, and warranting moderation. Nothing in this thread approaches that level, but I would suggest that those trying to change the status quo should articulate arguments in a way that will convert opponents into willing listeners.

Students and alums should know that some in the academy, even those who don't agree (fully) with the likes of Prof. Campos, are speaking up in their institutions. Some are trying to end or prevent the types of practices that have led to the current state of affairs. To those who oppose tenure, however, I suggest that were it not for those protections, most faculty trying to forge some measure of change would be less able to do so.

Posted by: AnonProf13 | Mar 31, 2014 10:38:07 AM

Oh, AnonProf13, you're right that nothing in these comments warrants moderation. 'please' on Mar 29 at 11:11 is just Brian Leiter being Brian Leiter. And here he is doing the same thing a month and a half ago: http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2014/02/what-i-saw-at-the-counter-revolution.html?cid=6a00e54f871a9c883301a3fcc2cbad970b#comment-6a00e54f871a9c883301a3fcc2cbad970b

Posted by: little piggy | Mar 31, 2014 1:06:02 PM

And here at 1:53 in case there was any doubt:


Posted by: little piggy | Apr 28, 2014 4:42:18 PM

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