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Monday, June 09, 2014

Anxiety and Ambition in the Trenches

A benefit of my temporary role as AALS president is the opportunity to meet with faculty and administrators at their law schools, mainly in order to listen to their concerns and advice and hopefully draw upon this wisdom to improve the service of the organization in this time of disruptive change.

The atmosphere of these visits reveals a high level of concern (of course) with the impact of the changing admissions structure and what it portends for law school benefits generally and faculty well-being particularly.  Yet, what is remarkably encouraging, when taking these high-anxiety conversations as a whole, is this:

First, faculty members truly get that the core dilemma is how best to provide a high-quality education to the group of students, even as they come in often at smaller numbers, and, moreover, how to inculcate in them the value of a manifestly comprehensive, creative set of skills -- theoretical and experiential -- in a fluid marketplace, the future contours of which none of us can predict exactly.  That the infrastructure of student learning is at the heart of what we do as faculty members comes up in these discussions reliably and eloquently.  And, further, that the key threat from the war on law schools is that directed at the students who are investing, and the young alumni who have invested, in legal education is very much on the minds of our member school faculties.

Second, there is a deep confidence, some might call it hubris, that the doing and disseminating of legal scholarship will continue largely unabated.  This is not to minimize the impact of challenged budgets on how law profs do their work.  However, no one I have visited with on behalf of AALS regards the scholarly enterprise as a luxury or an imposition and no one sees the current pressures as a beginning of a crowding out of scholarly discourse and creative engagement with ideas and efforts at tackling urgent matters of legal reform.  The self-selection that draws significant numbers of talented lawyers to the legal academy will preserve, so long as law schools survive in the basic form that they exist presently, the good, ambitious work that our faculties pursue in their research, writing, and speaking.

Third, and on a less optimistic note, the decline in law faculty hiring can be expected to hinder law schools' goals in concrete ways.  To be clear, I seldom hear expressions of anxiety that this or that school's "ranking" is in jeopardy or that the overall reputation of the law school is in peril because further hiring is postponed, perhaps for a long while.  (No doubt these fears exist, but they are not, to me, central on the minds of the faculty with which I have visited).  Rather, halting faculty hiring can sap from the general environment of the school the creative energy that comes from new ideas and perspectives; it can also limit the bandwith with which a law school can implement innovative, modern programs designed to respond to the rapidly changing dimensions of legal practice and the profession.  Reliance on different kinds of faculty -- lecturers, adjuncts, visitors -- can ameliorate these difficulties.  But a full-time faculty invested in the governance and the long-term well-being of the law school is not easily substituable -- at least not from the perspective of the many law schools with which I have visited.

So, in the trenches are clear-eyed, smart, serious teacher-scholars, passionate about what they do, concerned about the challenges facing their law schools, and committed to substantial change, while also invested in preserving what is successful and constructive about the modern structure of legal education in the U.S.  In all, an encouraging picture, even if relentlessly under threat by those who reach a contrary conclusion (on much thinner evidence).

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on June 9, 2014 at 10:37 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

Comments

"And, further, that the key threat from the war on law schools is that directed at the students who are investing, and the young alumni who have invested, in legal education is very much on the minds of our member school faculties."

Where "war on law schools" means "people honestly describing the myriad ways in which law schools have misled and poorly served recent classes of graduating JDs" and "invested" means "borrowed $100k+ of non-dischargeable student debt so that law faculties could continue to make $100k-$300k while spending all but four to eight hours a week on doing something other than teaching students." Thanks, Dan.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jun 9, 2014 9:29:15 AM

Let the scamblogging games commence!!
I should have added to above: law faculty with whom I meet are remarkably resilient and positive in the face of the bottomless pit of screed and invective that comes by way of (mostly) anonymous bloggers.

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Jun 9, 2014 9:34:08 AM

For what it's worth, I did chuckle at "bottomless pit of screed and invective." Clearly hyperbole is one of the strengths you bring to your office.

As they say in a very different but very relevant context, the first step is to admit you have a problem. If you think that a few articles or blogs can be fairly described as a "war on law schools," or that an average indebtedness of $125k-$150k can be fairly described as "investment" in light of 30%-50% of the graduates of the last six years having no meaningful opportunity to practice law after graduation, you aren't there yet. If you are praising yourself or your constituents for merely discussing the problem aloud after six years of graduates screaming to your prospective students on the Internet, you aren't there yet.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jun 9, 2014 9:55:51 AM

I have taken to limiting, policing, or sometimes closing comments on subjects that are likely to draw more, and more invective-laden, comments on certain issues--a couple of them political but most law school related. That is somewhat to my regret, but, aside from it's being my right to do so, I find that those threads rarely provide new arguments or information and often involve the use of anonymity not to make sharp or critical points, with which I have no problem, but to make them in a way that is unduly, unnecessarily rude, personal, etc. Although I am willing to accept for the sake of argument that there are some or many people who genuinely believe that they are required to use anonymity for the sake of professional protection, I am less inclined to think that this is all the same thing as using anonymity to simply be rude, vulgar, monomaniacal, and so on. Anonymity lets you comment without fear of reprisal, but it doesn't say anything about *how* you should comment, and it clearly frees up some people to write anonymously not for the sake of being critical but for the sake of being jerks.

That said, I'm a little worried about *too* much "resiliency" in the face of "screed and incentive" coming from mostly anonymous bloggers. Some of those bloggers make useful arguments and factual contributions; that's true even of those who have real problems maintaining even minimal levels of decency in their writing. On the whole, I'm perfectly happy to ignore those commenters secure in the knowledge that the same points have either been made or will be made by someone who is somehow able to convey the same point without repeated use of words like "asshole." But I try to keep one eye open for new or powerful arguments, even from those individuals; I may not always like the messenger, but sometimes the message is indeed worth hearing.

There's one other value in even some of the most screed/incentive-laden sites and discussions. It has less to do with the content of those discussions and more to do with their value as a barometer of student or graduate (if that's who the commenters are) opinion. I do not assume, as some have argued with little evidence, that for every one person writing in this fashion there are a hundred more who share all those sentiments. It may be true but I can't say. I still think it's relevant, however, even if the numerosity of the group is hard to determine, that *some* apparently substantial group of students feel this way. Although I am inclined to cut short those discussions at my own blog, I still occasionally visit other sites that are more freewheeling about this, if only to take a temperature reading. Sometimes it reveals issues where feelings run especially high; sometimes it helps pinpoint particular arguments, for or against the law schools as such, where there is a strong residue of feeling; sometimes, although it does not prevent me entirely from writing about law schools and legal education, it reminds me not to write too hubristically. So, although I'm sympathetic to Dan's point and the reasons for it, I wouldn't want law professors to ignore altogether, for reasons of resilience or what have you, those communities and commentators who express very strong feelings, even if some of them clearly are unwilling or incapable of presenting them without diving into the muck. (I would not count the first comment above in this category; it was sharp-tongued but not especially personal.) It may not be mandatory for those of us who run blogs to turn every site into an open forum for vulgarity, but we should be resilient enough to keep track of these arguments and of the strong feelings they suggest, rather than to ignore them altogether.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 9, 2014 10:04:21 AM

Paul's thoughtful ruminations are, to me, exactly right. And it contains an important admonition for open-mindedness in the face of very critical speech.
I might add only that the worst forms of behavior ("more freewheeling" may be a nice way to put it) sap some of the important critiques and, indeed, the temperature that, as he says, ought to be read and reflected upon.

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Jun 9, 2014 10:27:15 AM

Yes, Paul - sometimes we CAN learn new perspectives, and consider that for one nasty commentator there are several others who feel the same way. But we also see - and the first comment here is typical in this regard - wild hyperbole (4-8 hrs? $300K? no freaking way) repeated on every comments thread, crowding out useful or thoughtful discussion. My personal belief is, having been a regular reader of this blog for about 4-5 years, is that the discourse here has suffered greatly thereby. YMMV.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 9, 2014 11:20:08 AM

@Anon/11:20 a.m.:

"(W)ild hyperbole," huh?

Let's start with salaries, then. Private law school salaries are private, but public law school salaries aren't. In 2011, Prof. Horwitz was paid $168k at the University of Alabama. When Prof. Rodriguez taught at the University of Texas, the median salary in the School of Law for a full professor was $200k, in a range between $158k and $257k. Over at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, Dean Chemerinsky and his wife pull in a little over $600k for their efforts, and Prof. Menkel-Meadow $320k. Rare is the law school that pays a tenure-track or tenured faculty member less than $100k, and there are many examples of professors being paid between $100k and $300k just at public law schools whose salaries I can review. Therefore, I said "$100k to $300k." If you have information you would like to share about why this range of salaries is unfair or unrepresentative, feel free.

Prof. Horwitz is right to say that there is not much new to be learned from reading scamblogs or comments like mine. But until the subjects of criticism (e.g., what law school costs relative to what most graduates earn, how those costs are distributed among students, how much time professors invest directly in teaching) change in some meaningful way, one shouldn't expect otherwise.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jun 9, 2014 11:46:17 AM

There are plenty of law schools that pay assistant professors less than 100K. A few even pay less than 75K. Most of these schools are private schools so you have to know and trust the professors about their salaries (or have received offers from those schools)

Posted by: JA | Jun 9, 2014 1:06:32 PM

The "war on law schools" is really just a bunch of reasonably intelligent, if generally misinformed and naive, college students waking up to the notion that going in 200-300K of debt to get a job that pays 40-60K just isn't worth it. When you have made it worth it again, the war on law schools will end. If AALS fails to address that dilemma, the criticism will continue.

The sense I get from your posts is that you don't understand what is wrong with legal education right now, you believe the system that serves you so well must be preserved in essentially its current economic form, and you are a bit confused about why all these little, unprestigious people on the internet are making all this fuss. That attitude was understandable in 2010. It is not anymore.

Posted by: BoredJD | Jun 9, 2014 3:33:15 PM

"And, further, that the key threat from the war on law schools is that directed at the students who are investing, and the young alumni who have invested, in legal education is very much on the minds of our member school faculties."

I'm a young alumni (graduated in 2009) who "invested" quite a lot of money, and continue to "invest" since my IBR payments don't cover the interest. I don't work in a JD required or JD preferred job. How are these "scamblogger" attacks a threat to me? I get that they are rude, and probably not terrible useful to me, but I don't see how they can possibly harm me.

Posted by: brad | Jun 9, 2014 4:13:41 PM

"And, further, that the key threat from the war on law schools is that directed at the students who are investing, and the young alumni who have invested, in legal education is very much on the minds of our member school faculties."

I was going to phrase it as - could you please rephrase this in English?

Paul, Dan, what I've seen here is professors who don't deal well with facts, in an environment where they don't get deference, and their claims are subject to even a gentle critique.

Posted by: Barry | Jun 9, 2014 9:09:18 PM

dan rodriguez just loves attention.

he and his propoonents say that scambloggers are not saying anything new. but what has dan rodriguez said in this post that is new?

he just wants to preserve the system that has served him so well and brought him so much wealth for so many years. and he wants to create some sort of legacy, and these blog posts are his amateurish and ill-conceived attempt to do so.

i don't disagree with his point, that the law school model will continue unabated upon its plotted course for some time to come. this problem is systemic to the academic industry, not just law schools. they exhibit an enron style of greed, exploiting government student loans to enable rampant inflation of tuition and enrichment of selves. maybe it's okay for "T14" (where the student body is 90% made of spoiled kids with great test prep programs who were born rich and will die rich), but it isn't okay for all schools. people's lives have been ruined by the decision to invest in law school, an investment decision that was fueled by deliberate misrepresentation of employment prospects by many schools. and to blame those students who were seduced by the siren call of 99% employment at $160K/yr, but did not achieve their desired results, would be no more fair than to blame an investor whose portfolio collapsed because the company lied in its 10K.

the decision makers in academia, firmly ensconced in their position and profiting handsomely, have no incentive to say anything new. that's why dan rodriguez has never said anything new on this topic. that's why "scambloggers" have nothing new to come back at him with. academia is becoming a ponzi scheme, that can genuinely serve as a wealth vehicle for the already wealthy, but has a higher tendency to financially cut people down just as they were starting to stand. it's a cash-grab while the gettin's good. but it's not a problem for dan rodriguez's generation of educators to solve. they are in a business, they know it, and they want the money of naive children, and they are getting it. they are flimflam men, and all this discussion amounts to is smoke and mirrors.

there are law grads out there, who own no property, but maybe could have already bought a house. ask them where that house is. they'll point to their JD degree. that's where their house went.

school is great. but why does it have to be so expensive?

Posted by: jesse mazur | Jun 9, 2014 9:59:22 PM

Dan, of course they're remarkably resilient. They're getting paid. There are ample loathesome scoundrels in myriad fields who care not about the slings and arrows so long as the payoff is sufficiently high- wallstreeters, payday lenders, supplemental warranty salesmen, etc.

Paul, how magnanimous of you to tolerate criticism. Perhaps a law review article is in order--"the ivory tower, a citadel of free speech in the brutal war of ideas"

There is a reason that law faculty are persistently held in such low regard by those who know them the best--former students. Why do you think that is? All of you refuse to even ask that question.

Paul, rather than call names and act like a big victim, I offer a modest proposal. Air it all out in one big post. It should be, "an open forum to the critics. What is wrong with legal education and what would you do to reform it?" I think you'd be impressed with the ideas, but also threatened.

Posted by: Jojo | Jun 11, 2014 8:00:18 AM

Jojo, thanks for the comment. Although I appreciate why you say that, I'm not trying to seem "magnanimous," in a de-haut-en-bas manner. I'm trying to say sincerely that regardless of whether individual comments here or elsewhere, especially on the "scamblog" sites, are novel, helpful, kind, or anything else, law professors shouldn't simply ignore them or worry one way or another about their own "resilience." They should appreciate at least one of the points that both you and a couple of other commenters make here: that both individually and taken as a whole, many of those comments should be paid attention insofar as they describe a mood of at least some current or former students. Whether that mood is broadly representative or not is relevant, but even if it described the persistent feelings of only a few, those persistent feelings are important in and of themselves. Incidentally, on your final point, I have done a couple of open forum to critic type posts, although not recently. When I wrote about Brian's book, and posted a draft review, I was very clear in asking for comments particularly not from other profs but from the community you're describing. I did get a lot of comments, here and via email, and I did learn from some of them. Some of those ideas made it into the final draft and into my own views, and I still occasionally learn from what I read elsewhere, although, as others here have noted, there is also a good deal of repetition. (Which may have some value in itself, as an expression of intensity of views.)

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 11, 2014 10:18:37 AM

Who is to say going to law school is really irrational?

According to the BLS, the median pay and the number of lawyers employed has increased every year for the last ten (2004-2013) except for a small dip in the employment number from 2007 to 2008.

In 2004 there were 521,130 lawyers earning a median income of $108,790.

In 2013 there were 592,670 lawyers earning $131,990 on average.

Looks like a pretty robust occupation to me.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 11, 2014 11:50:14 AM

Shorter anon- "I don't know the difference between median and average."

On, and $108k in 2004 is $133K in 2013 dollars. So that.

Posted by: BoredJD | Jun 11, 2014 12:14:11 PM

Actually both the medians and the means have increased. But agreed, average pay has lost ground slightly to inflation.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 11, 2014 4:41:29 PM

Anon @11:50:14:

In 2013, Powerball paid out 13 jackpots with an average value of $215.8 million (smallest was $40 million).

Compare with 2003, when there were 11 jackpots with an average value of $99.4 million (smallest was $10 million).

Jackpot winners are up 11%, and winnings have doubled. Does that mean we ought to be out buying more lottery tickets? Nope. And we especially shouldn't be doing it if the ticket price has tripled and the odds of winning were cut in half.

What the BLS data doesn't show are the losers. It's not enough to say the legal industry has expanded. That rate of expansion needs to be compared to the rate of JD production. What matters to individual students is not the total number of winners, but the odds of becoming a winner.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jun 20, 2014 11:39:54 AM

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