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Monday, July 21, 2008

On "Smart" Lawyers

I haven't been reading Jason's series of posts about "super-elite" law schools, but it strikes me that this piece, which I was going to excerpt anyway, may be something of a response to his own comment on his latest post. The New York Times yesterday linked to an interesting piece in The American Scholar by William Deresiewicz, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. Here's a particularly relevant snippet:

The first disadvantage of an elite education . . . is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it . . . .

But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I also never learned that there are smart people who aren’t “smart.” The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.

Are these observations especially relevant with respect to law school? How worthwhile is it working towards Jason's "super-elite" law school, defined by the qualities that he says make it "super-elite?" Granted that one important aspect of law and legal practice is analytical excellence, and that it may be a sine qua non for much legal practice. But do people who have tested well for analytical intelligence, and attained some success as a result, tend to over-value it in the law as compared to other kinds of intelligence -- the ability to work with others, creativity, emotional intelligence, and so on? Is it any wonder that so many graduates of the top law schools end up climbing the standard rungs from law review to clerkship to the Peter Principle points of either unhappy non-equity partnership or unproductive tenure -- while many other law school graduates, who are neither the tops of their class nor graduates of elite law schools, become rainmakers, superb mediators, top trial lawyers, the developers of innovative legal arguments, and agents of social change? Is there a point at which the criteria we so often value in the constantly insecure world of legal, and legal academic, ranking are not meaningful criteria for the development of meaningful legal skills, but merely measures of how well "people like us" talk to people like us?

As a side note, a quick-and-dirty Westlaw search for "emotional intelligence" in the same paragraph as "law school" yields a little over 50 results. A similar search substituting the words "first in his [or her] class" within the same paragraph as "law school" turns up around 240 results. What do you think we value?

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 21, 2008 at 10:39 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I definitely think it's a "where do I put this thing?" kind of thing for a lot of people. noone really knows what to do with diplomas, so they follow the leader and hang them up in their offices for lack of anything better to do. keeping a picture on your office wall of yourself with justice breyer on the other hand... that's a bit too obviously doofus-like. personally, i'm planning to hang my law diploma directly facing the toilet in my law office bathroom for people to enjoy when they're visiting. in my actual office will be an enlarged photograph of myself after having gotten a perfect score on Ms Pac Man.

Posted by: colin | Jul 28, 2008 10:36:36 PM

Orin, not to continue the hijack too much, but I don't find pictures of group photos with Justices to be any more pointed than framed diplomas, especially those from schools that issue diplomas written entirely in Latin. In most states, if one is a practicing lawyer one will have graduated from law school. What is the purpose of advertising that fact? Possibly braggadocio. Or we can give people the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to pride in one's accomplishments, fond memories, or that dilemma more frequently associated with Oscar winners--"where do I put this thing? In my bathroom?"

Posted by: Kristen | Jul 25, 2008 5:40:41 PM

Matthew,

Yes, I meant the holier-than-thou, and not the people at Alabama you describe. And honestly, I've not even encountered the "children of (relative) affluence" in any way that made me take note of their situations. Maybe it's because I'm not from here (Alabama), and to paraphrase an earlier poster, I don't know enough to even know I should feel poorly?

I do hear the occasional, "Oh, that's So-and-So's kid," but honestly, it's never made a difference to me, since most of the time I require a secondary explanation of who So-and-So is. There certainly are some name-droppers among our classmates, but when you don't even know the names they are dropping, it isn't quite as effective.

You can answer me off-line -- I think we're taking this tangent down an even windier road -- but I'm definitely interested in your perspective.

Posted by: JM | Jul 22, 2008 1:42:35 PM

John, it's a fair question, but...

1. Many people believe that law school doesn't teach many practical skills. Thus, the primary utility of law schools to potential employers is as a sorting mechanism. If you demonstrate, say, an ability to succeed at Harvard and an interest in litigation, a litigation firm will probably think that there's a strong possibility that you have the raw material necessary to become a good litigator once you learn how to do that.

2. Law schools produce something like 10,000 graduates per year. I don't know how many of them go on to get jobs that require them to explain high-minded ideas to anyone. All else being equal, it's probably easier to teach someone like Deresiewicz to explain high-minded ideas to juries than it is to go in the opposite direction.

Posted by: krs | Jul 22, 2008 12:20:53 PM

Perhaps this is my state-school education showing, but isn't the real question, at least in this forum, whether one type of school or the other makes one a better lawyer?

I suppose most of the time, at least in a big firm, elite educated lawyers are speaking with elite educated clients, so there's no disconnect. The problem is when someone has to walk into a courtroom and explain those high minded ideas to a postal worker sitting on a jury when the elite educated client is sued or indicted. Does someone from a lower ranked school do that better than someone from a super-elite one?

Posted by: John | Jul 22, 2008 11:32:21 AM

JM,

I should make clear (just so I'm not confused): when you mention the "asses," that refers to those who lord their so-called "pedigree" over the rest of us, not the children of (relative) affluence who attend Alabama. It's been my experience that even the privileged at Alabama are good people qua people, but they're just a little clueless when it comes to those outside their normal circle - much like the phenomenon Deresiewicz describes.

Posted by: Matthew Krell | Jul 22, 2008 11:14:55 AM

What I found to be the most insightful part of Deresiewicz's article is largely going unnoticed here, namely the general inability of graduates of elite institutions to communicate with those from lower classes. While this point is certainly based on a generalization, I nevertheless found it to be strikingly accurate. At the undergraduate level in particular, development of social skills is (or should be) as important as intellectual growth. Yet, in my experience, most of my friends from "elite" colleges come up woefully short in this area, at least once they leave their circle of like-minded friends. I'm sure some of the commenters here will disagree, but I also suspect that truth be told, they rarely are able to successfully interact with those from a blue collar/red neck perspective.

Posted by: jimmy | Jul 22, 2008 9:02:29 AM

What Deresiewicz, and many people who write on this topic seem to assume, is that there are only two or three groups of students: those that could get into, and wanted to go to, the elite schools; and those that couldn’t get into the top schools and so settled for wherever it is they ended up. Every once in a while someone will recognize the third group: those that specifically wanted to go elsewhere. For example, since Alabama has been the example in earlier posts, those students who grew up in Alabama, whose parents, grandparents, etc., went to Alabama, and for whom Alabama is, in essence, more important than any super-elite could ever be. There is something to be said both for tradition and for the definite existence of good-old-boys network, and I can imagine situations in which an Ivy-league education might be a detriment.

But these classes leave out the possibility of yet another group, into which I fall: those of us who simply didn’t care (at least to an extent) where we went, because our goals were not “big city firms” or other career paths where the names (seem to) matter so much. Leaving us out in a way underscores the arrogance that the authors of these types of articles are trying either to explain or for which they want to apologize.

But while we are on the subject, what of us, then?

I am not convinced that the criteria of Top-15 school, etc., are all that valuable.

It seems to me – without super-elite education at any tier of my resume – that some top-15 alums look down on “the rest of us,” and some of “the rest of us” look at the top 15 with jealousy. Orin Kerr said this best with his first two points. Obnoxious people are obnoxious no matter where; it’s just a matter of what they posture with. If their “thing” is that their school (or degree) is better than mine, I’m not convinced I can change that perception. But quite frankly, other than the asses Matt Krell mentions, I’ve always found that what matters is what I do, and how I do it, and not my “pedigree,” if you will. Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough; I’ve not been around enough of the obnoxious asses to see that they are right, after all, which means I’m clearly not in the most prestigious places where those people all tend to be, and obviously I am not there to begin with because my choice of schools precluded it? (Kidding. Oh, and I am just realizing that I do, in fact, have an Ivy on my resume. My nursery school was called “Ivy League.”)

So tell me, am I woefully naïve? Do I betray my middle-class, lower-tax-bracket upbringing by valuing the “what” and not the “where” of my education? If I change my mind one day and want to teach, and teach at a top school at that, am I doomed? To analogize, will I forever be the kid who lives in the Hamptons, not the one who “has a house” in the Hamptons? (As indeed, there is a difference…)

Posted by: JM | Jul 22, 2008 1:28:38 AM

I think it's true that these schools select based upon narrow conceptions of intelligence. On the other hand, the point of a professional school is likewise narrow. Still, there is a broad range of subcategories of lawyers, and I'm sure some (public interest, full-service lawyer) require a different skill-set from those which others (white shoe appellate practice) require. I hate to expand the point of the article, but do you see any specialization of law schools in the cards? Northwestern is a great school, and it seems to be toying with one aspect of lawyering: might there be a greater self-selection for application to schools in the future, and how does this bear on the LSAT? Will Yale still take the LSAT, with NYU requiring its applicants to provide certain results on the House-Tree-Person test?

Posted by: AndyK | Jul 21, 2008 11:59:51 PM

anon#2,

Perhaps I was unclear, but I believe we are talking about two very different things. In the article discussed above, the author is arguing that students at elite colleges aren't as well-rounded and open minded as they should be. My point about the grass being greener is that the author may have a false belief that students not at elite colleges are better on that front. Nothing I said was supposed to have any relevance to job prospects. Sorry if I misunderstood or was unclear. (In terms of legal academia, OF COURSE the grass is greener for those seeking teaching jobs who have degrees from the highest-ranked schools. )

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 21, 2008 9:19:11 PM

Orin,

No, I agree that if the purpose of putting up the picture is to hold over everyone else's head the "I clerked mwahahaha" phenomenon, then putting up your autographed picture of the Court is asinine.

My point is that sometimes a SCT clerk doesn't think about it in terms of that - it's just, "Hey, these people were an important part of my life and I liked them and here's this memento I have of that time."

It's certainly possible for the latter to come across as the former - but I guess the way it's perceived will depend less on the picture, and more on the relationship the former clerk has with their coworkers. If they're seen as really asinine, then yeah - it'll be seen as a dick move to put it up. But if they actually have good relationships with their co-associates, then the fact that they have an autographed picture of the Court up in their office shouldn't matter.

I guess what it boils down to, across the board, is that you can get away with doing things that might be asinine in other contexts if you aren't, you know, an asshole.

Posted by: Matthew Krell | Jul 21, 2008 8:01:39 PM

Really great comments on this post; thanks, everyone. Let me weigh in briefly. In response to Matt, there are two kind of stock articles (well, more than two, but two I'll mention here) about the elite universities: sneering imprecations of pretty-boy Harvard types and other liberal elitists, which I can do without out, and more thoughtful but ultimately often somewhat self-serving critiques of the elites, which certainly can be stock pieces but which often have something interesting to say. Matt doesn't care for the genre, and that's fine with me; they can indeed be annoying, although not, I think, for the reasons Matt offers toward the end of his first comment. My point in posting this was not to endorse everything in the article. It was specifically because I liked the suggestion that the effects of these places, and of internalizing their fondness for particular kinds of talents, can be isolating; and because I liked the reminder that the "best and brightest" are the best and brightest at particular things, but these things are not the only qualities we ought to value or that can be of service. That last point, but both of them, really, ring true for success in the legal profession, and also serve as a useful reminder that we might value multiple kinds of "intelligence," and multiple kinds of virtues, rather than just internalize particular qualities that are said to define the "elite." More, the failure to do so can sometimes remind us of just why some people who exemplify these qualities only make it so far, while others who contain other virtues (creativity, empathy, street-smarts, hunger, etc.) make it even further.

That's what I liked about this excerpt, and I think other commenters have responded with approval to some of the same points. As usual, I don't want to be too dogmatic about these points. I greatly benefited from my time at "elite" schools, and there is much to be said for hanging around people with strong analytical skills -- although I appreciate just as much as that the opportunity such places afforded me to be around people with broad cultural literacy. Not that these are the only places you can find such folks -- and those very assumptions are what I was writing against -- but certainly the quotient of such people at elite schools is very high. To say that we should value all kinds of "intelligence" is not to say we shouldn't value the kinds of intelligence that feature commonly at elite schools. I wasn't intending some populist screed against the kinds of schools I like very much; only a good reminder of their limits, and thus of the limits of caring about "super-elite" status to the exclusion of other virtues. I would thus agree with Orin that people are people, and we all have our virtues and vices -- even the salt of the earth types who are paid obeisance in every campaign ad.

In response to Matthew Krell's question, I haven't served on the admissions committee at Alabama (or anywhere else), so I'm reluctant to be too presumptuous. My sense is that Alabama, like most schools, struggles with the usual difficulties of wanting a good mix of all kinds of qualities among its students while also maintaining and raising standard "academic" qualifications. How well it does this is open to fair comment, as with other schools; I do think it is conscious of wanting to truly be the entire state's law school, for what it's worth, but I also think that -- again, as with virtually all law schools -- the desire to have some of the best "numbers," both for their own sake (which is to say, for US News's sake) and for the often laudable talents they represent, will disproportionately benefit people who have had the greatest economic and educational advantages up to the point of admission.

Perhaps a slightly different spin on my post, but still along Matthew's line, is to ask whether schools below the mythical top 15 should be making a more concerted effort to select for other kinds of talents and "intelligence" rather than just focusing on traditional analytical skills. I think some schools do this, or at least try to develop such skills even if they don't base admissions on them. I don't just mean focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of practice, but also focusing on a wide variety of practice skills, including mediation etc. But every school wants to be in the top 15, and most schools feel the pressure to either advance in a very competitive law school market or risk falling behind. We might also ask whether "elite" law schools ought to be thinking about how to value other things besides analytical skills. Again, as with the non-elite schools, I think many of the elite schools at least think about some of these issues and sometimes do a little more than that, but that such efforts often don't get very far. I do think there is a lot of room for thinking about these issues, although I again don't want to be assumed to be knocking analytical skills and conventional forms of intelligence as such.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 21, 2008 7:25:45 PM

Matthew,

Sure, but why do you see that as relevant? Much of our discussion in this thread is about people being inconsiderate about other peoples' feelings. In my experience, the associate who posts the Justice group photo is seen as an ass by everyone else: the message sent is "I clerked and you didn't, and I'm not going to let you forget it." Your response appears to be that being inconsiderate towards others is okay so long as a person feels personal "affection" towards the affiliation. Or at least that's what I take your argument to be: I suppose one of the problems with using sarcasm is that it can make it harder to determine the argument.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 21, 2008 7:10:46 PM

Memorandum

To: Harvard Alumni

From: The World

Re.: Conversation

Most people, when referring to an event observed while in college, simply say "in college." This true particularly where the subject is not the college itself, but rather the observation or event. Such a practice will preclude listeners from, rightfully or wrongfully, finding the gratuitous inclusion of the name of the school as not-so-subtle boasting.

For example:

"My first semester at college, I had the worst roommate imaginable."

NOT:

"My first semester at Harvard, I had the worst roommate imaginable."

Posted by: Etiquette Police | Jul 21, 2008 6:27:02 PM

Orin,

My interaction with former SCOTUS clerks suggests that (as incredible as it sounds) they generally actually feel affection for the Court and the Justices.

Whoda thunk?

Posted by: Matthew Krell | Jul 21, 2008 5:52:45 PM

chad,

Your comment about SCT clerks remind me of something: What's with the former SCT clerks who hang up the signed picture of the Justices from their term of clerking in their offices? I always thought that was just incredibly obnoxious, especially for associates.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 21, 2008 5:47:49 PM

Orin,

Regarding your #3 comment above, this is certainly not true in the legal academy. When it comes to faculty hiring, for example, "the grass is always greener" for candidates with elite (HYSCCN) pedigrees. Indeed, I know of appointments chairs who told candidates with non-elite degrees that their respective committees wouldn't even consider them. Heck, when was the last time GW hired a non-elite?

Posted by: anon#2 | Jul 21, 2008 5:45:19 PM

Meh-

You’re probably right. I only really worked as a lawyer in one city, though my sense from my time as a summer associate in DC and Chicago was that there were certain sorts of credentials (take the Supreme Court clerkship as the easy example, but there are others) that seemed to endow their holder (not universally, but with widely enough) with an aura that had some staying power. I certainly get the sense that this is true in academia to a greater extent than in private practice. See, e.g., the perennial discussion of how hard it is to get a teaching job without an elite law degree.

This is, of course, a complex set of phenomena (which makes it simultaneously terrific and terrible blog fodder). I don’t disagree with much of anything in the comments here. But, as I noted above, it seems to me from my perspective eighteen years on and a thousand miles away that the author is onto something. No doubt it’s overstated, and the sort of thing with many parallels (as Orin points out). Many of the particulars aren’t things I saw. But that basic attitude - in a broad sense and subject to all sorts of exceptions and qualifications, the way human behavior tends to be - yeah, I remember that.

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | Jul 21, 2008 5:09:04 PM

Matthew,

I wasn't intending to critique your comment -- rather, I agree with it. My #3 point wasn't about non-elite schools at all, but rather just that people are people wherever you go.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 21, 2008 3:26:32 PM

Others have noticed the article.
http://bamber.blogspot.com/2008/06/is-mark-of-entitled-mediocrity.html

It's an awful article. Deresiewicz has some social and emotional baggage and he blames Harvard instead of himself. It's not as if people in Ivy League institutions are forbidden to leave campus or to talk to anyone who's not a teacher or a student there.

In response to Prof. Oldfather, I think a lot of people experience some kind of an adjustment when they go from school to working and find that they're evaluated on their work once they get in the door. The elite institutions help with the job search, but if the clients aren't getting any value out of your services, they don't stick around just because you had good SAT scores.

(For undergrad, I went to a small, very old school in the Northeast whose alumni seem to care way too much about its awful football team. Which one, you ask? I'm not telling.)

Posted by: meh | Jul 21, 2008 3:17:35 PM

Orin,

I think your point in #2 about the different standards for what makes people be "obnoxious pricks" sums up what I was trying (and failing) to say.

I think, though, in your efforts to be generic with your third point, that you rendered it toothless. Can you give us a concrete example (need not name names, could be "at a certain law school at a university named after a president in Washington, DC . . . ." - kidding, of course!), because I feel like, when you talk about "unrealistic expectations," that you may in part be critiquing my comment about the makeup of the student body at my school. Since I don't want to be unrealistic, I hope you'll note that (if true).

Posted by: Matthew Krell | Jul 21, 2008 3:10:01 PM

Er, make that 3 thoughts.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 21, 2008 2:53:36 PM

Interesting thread. Let me offer two thoughts.

1) There is no doubt that some people who go to or went to elite schools are obnoxious pricks about it. I tend to think it's just the old insecurity game: If you feel insecure about yourself and your accomplishments in life (and who doesn't?), you're likely to grab onto whatever experience makes you feel the most accomplished and secure. And for some people, it's the school they attended. So they pretend that the school you attend(ed) has some sort of profound influence on who you are. Yeah, it's really obnoxious.

2) At the same time, the important question is relative: Are people at these elite schools any more obnoxious and self-satisfied than anyone else? I'm not so sure about that. Different people are obnoxious about different things. It may just be that we're unusually sensitive to US News obnoxiousness (for lack of a better word) while we overlook other kinds of obnoxious. Maybe at a different kind of school, students are super obnoxious if they're in the "right" fraternity or their parents have some $$. I think it's actually kinda complicated to answer the relative question in the abstract.

3) On the question of the value of an ivy league education, once again I think the question is relative. It's easy to say that school X has flaws: the students are like Y, but they really should be more like Z, etc. But I wonder if the grass is always greener on the other side on such matters. As I understand it, Deresiewicz taught at Columbia and Yale, and he speculates that the situation is probably better elsewhere. But he has no actual experience with less snooty schools: he's just guessing, and he doesn't seem to have much to back up the guess. I tend to think that in the end, people are people: our complaints about the people in place X are often just complaints about people generally from someone who happens to be in place X with a particular set of unrealistic expectations.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 21, 2008 2:52:43 PM

Maybe I'm just blind, or maybe it's just a Harvard thing, but I don't remember a whole lot of the above attitudes when I was in school.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jul 21, 2008 2:46:01 PM

As someone from a distinctly non-privileged background who went to Harvard (and as the comments to this post suggest, people are going to think ill of you whether you come right out and say that or instead resort to “in Boston”), the article in general rings pretty true to me. (As does the comment immediately preceding this one.) I certainly observed those attitudes, and even internalized some of them. So it was a bit disconcerting (at first) to start practice in Minneapolis and find out that, once you get there, nobody cares all that much where you went to school or who you clerked for. Instead, weirdly enough, it was how good a lawyer you were that mattered. For that, a certain baseline amount of analytical horsepower was a necessary but hardly sufficient condition, with a whole bunch of other, often difficult-to-articulate factors making up the balance of the equation. I saw plenty of folks with degrees from elite institutions get nudged toward the door while their contemporaries from less-elite places excelled. So, yes, I do think we overvalue it – though I think that’s understandable (which is not to say justifiable) given that it’s perhaps the only part of good lawyering that we’ve figured out a way of measuring in law schools. (Or, at least, it’s the only one that we consistently measure. Of course, the question of how well we measure it is another one entirely.)

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | Jul 21, 2008 1:35:51 PM

One of my favorite things about attending an elite law school is that sympathetic "oh" at the name of my undergrad. Also entertaining: the look of disbelief (or fake "oh, I know, I really shouldn't either") when I tell a would-be pal flat-out that I couldn't possibly afford to "go get sushi" or "go out tonight (to a bar serving $6-14 drinks).”

Also of interest: the look of disgust, fear, or discomfort about anyone who treats "common problems” as though the phrase meant "frequently arising; relatable," rather than "inscrutable issue, attendant to the commoners.” This can include: accidental pregnancies; layoffs; protracted job searches; public assistance; lack of health insurance; grandparents living on fixed incomes; bad credit. Hearing someone think, while mentioning that ANY of the above apply to ANYONE you know, "oh, wow - it's like she doesn't even know enough to be embarrassed about what she's SAYING. She's never going to make it through a callback. How did she even get IN here?"

One of my least favorite things about attending an elite law school: deciding what to do about that. It's one thing to chuckle to myself when ivy-educated, achievement-conscious, social-climbing upper-middle-class snobs inadvertently display their own lack of actual class and grace by so clearly indicating their belief that I’m lacking those same qualities.

On the other hand, I've spent most of my life refusing to let my "smarts" come between me and my ability to communicate accurately, authentically, and effectively with "normal" people; is it really fair to now insist on letting my "class" come between me and the ability to communicate with those who are "law school normal"? It's not, after all, as if I don't know “how to behave,” or how to deliver what’s expected of me. It's a question of how willing I am to keep telling polite lies in order to keep people feeling comfortable around me. To some degree, lying politely IS hospitality, and grace, and class. So if I can't come along to the coast for the holiday, is it actually fair to my friends to be honest about why, instead of pretending I've made other plans?

Am I being fair to myself if I spend three years (an entire career?) being the person my "peers" are comfortable with, employers are comfortable hiring, the person who can be relied on in dealing with high-profile clients? Am I being fair to myself if being uncomfortably honest closes off opportunities since I'm paying for an elite law school at least in part to be privy to those social/career opportunities?

Posted by: anonymous | Jul 21, 2008 1:10:32 PM

Here's an interesting question for you, Paul. How does this dynamic play out at "lesser" schools like ours? For example, to what extent does Alabama's mission to be the state's public law school cause it to bring in those who aren't the most intellectually capable, but are Alabamians who come from the "right" communities? Ex.: In my seminar last fall, there were ten students. Of those ten, precisely one was of color, one was a religious minority, and seven of the other eight were from affluent suburbs of Birmingham (the eighth came from Mobile).

Without minimizing the other factors (self-selection, e.g.) that might have conspired to create such a class, my experience has been that the student body at UA reflects this particular problem. The students are "people like us," and the non-"people like us" are marginalized. I speak as one who is firmly "people like us," despite his best efforts.

N.B.: I'm not trying to pick on Alabama; it merely happens to be the law school I'm most familiar with, and since Paul is on the faculty there, and (I hope) a friend, (again, I hope) he won't mind my asking him for his views.

Posted by: Matthew Krell | Jul 21, 2008 12:53:32 PM

Anon, I think you missed the point of my comment. And if it makes you feel better I also have some degrees from some schools that are not elite, including one from a school that is of extremely modest distinction indeed. My point, of course, was to say that, 1)I have some experience here and it tells the other way than that in the article. 2) This is a common sort of article and a pretty annoying sort at that. Beyond those points it's neither a defense or attack on elite education. As for where I've gone to school, since I don't know you and, as far as I know, you don't know me, I don't see why it's that interesting but it wouldn't be hard to find out if you did care. (It wasn't in Boston, but then again, neither is Harvard.)

Posted by: matt | Jul 21, 2008 12:15:53 PM

Paul's post is characteristically interesting and sensitive to most of the issues Deresiewicz raises. One thing that struck me (as someone from a poor-ish background who went to public schools, community college, and then ultimately to university, public law school and an ivy-league finish for a credential bump) is this: getting a great education is as much or more a function of the individual as the institutions that individual has attended. The fact is, Harvard offers a way better chance to do a lot of peer-to-peer learning than most struggling public institutions do. But it also breeds a special kind of contempt in the minds of its graduates . . . which is its own disadvantage.

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Jul 21, 2008 12:10:16 PM

Something to bear in mind when discussing a shift in what we value for academic selection is the existence of useful metrics. It may well be that an elite law school could come up with a more successful crop of students if it selected for 'emotional intelligence' as well as analytical ability. But, as far as I know, there is no emotional SAT which makes it difficult to reliably assess the relative merit of such students. Indeed, imagining such a test is difficult and I do not think a useful one could be created.

Another thing to bear in mind is the relationship between the type of intelligence students possess, the nature of the coursework and the impact this has on the quality of the learning environment. In my experience, being surrounded with students who have a great aptitude for the material being taught enhances my ability to learn. Thus, in the context of law school, which focuses almost exclusively on teaching analytical thought, it is beneficial for me to be surrounded with the best analytical minds the school can get its hands on. Were law schools to change up their curriculum so as to value a broader skill set, it might make sense to change how they select students. Another way of making the same point is that the brilliant but borderline autistic jerk two rows down may not make the most of his elite education because of his limited social skills, but his contributions to class are of a significant benefit to the school in general and me in particular.

Changing law school selection criteria to favor alternate forms of intelligence will have a certain negative effect in reducing the average analytical quality of the student body, which in turn will make the school a less effective institution for teaching analytical thought. The upside to such a shift would necessarily be uncertain and limited because of the difficulty in selecting students in the absence of good metrics. So on the whole I think the law school admissions obsession with analytic ability makes sense in the world we live in, even if it is not ideal.

Posted by: Peter Dupont | Jul 21, 2008 12:05:17 PM

Congratulations on your Ivy Leage degrees, Matt!! You must be very smart (and proud), since you've got "a few" of them. And good for you for defending the honor of elite higher education! It's got so few Sir Galahads.

Oh wait, were you inviting the world to ask where you received your degrees?

Posted by: anon | Jul 21, 2008 11:47:37 AM

As someone with a few ivy league degrees to his name now I feel that I can safely say that, if what's discussed here is true at all it's probably only true of undergraduate education. Over-all, though, I'd put it in the category of Ross Douthat's stupid piece about how Harvard never taught him anything at all (including, if you recall the piece, how to read the course guide.) Now, in Ross's case it might have been a smart sort of stupid since playing that he never learned anything at Harvard has turned out to lead to a very nice job for him and I doubt that's what's being sought for here, but I do wish people wouldn't project their own problems and anxieties out so much. And anyway, when Harvard grads say they went to school "in Boston" this isn't an example of "noblesse oblige" but rather a way to get the person asking to say, "oh, which one?" so that the Harvard grad can then so, "Oh, Harvard." It's a way to get to brag without having to be quite so open about it. But anyway, it seems very much to me to be in the category of articles that follow the form, "I have the following complexes. I will blame them on some feature of my history that has nothing to do with me personally and removes any guilt from my part and will assume that everyone who shares this history must also have the same complexes." A very annoying form of writing.

Posted by: matt | Jul 21, 2008 11:22:32 AM

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