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Friday, September 30, 2011

In Our Defense

Feeling soiled, as I do, by Wednesday's talk of institutionalized academic corruption, and anticipating my month on the Blawg coming to an end, I'm going to write, if you will, a closing argument.  I rise to the legal academy's defense.

More and more, we legal academics talk about numbers -- whether it's rates of alumni employment, or institutional and student rankings, or our empirical research.  And I will defend the value of each.  But I now want to defend the institution itself -- the legal academy -- and to do so, it seems to me we must look elsewhere.

When I think about why I became a legal academic, I don't think in numbers.  It starts for me, as I suspect it does for most of us, with my own law school experience.  And what stands in relief is not student rank, or the movement in the US News rankings, or starting salary, though all of these certainly matter.  Rather, it was a handful of professors who truly left an impression -- in their dynamic teaching, creative research, and ultimately, their sincere dedication to me and my student peers. And when I left school to enter practice, it suddenly hit me:  my intellectual and moral growth is no longer the defining purpose of my day-to-day labors.  My new superiors indeed spent a bit of time mentoring me, but frankly, it wasn't much;  such was not their principal job description.  And only then could I see and really appreciate that my professors (at least the best of them) were truly dedicated in their capacity as teachers to my own development.  Inside the academy, this was true; outside, it was not.

From time to time, we professors are asked to serve as amateur counselors and life philosophers; when that student enters our office and says, "I don't know what I'm looking for in law school or in life," we need to be able to say something.  And I typically say something like the following:  the things I've found that are necessary to a meaningful life are creative freedom, sincere generosity, and an accomplishment that contributes something of yourself to the world.  And my defense of the academy is this.  I have observed these three things in the legal academy on a scale, and to a degree, unmatched in my experience:  that senior colleague who voluntarily mentors me when he has no obligation to do so; the junior colleague who thoroughly reads and comments on a draft when she's already swamped; the teacher who gives more to her students than one could reasonably expect; the scholarship that truly transforms how we see and govern the world.  It's beautiful stuff, and truth be told, it inspires me.

Yes, we have some numbers problems.  And we need to fix them.  But the legal academy -- the people who comprise it -- have shown me some of the very best that the world has to offer.  I'm proud to count myself among you.

Thanks, everyone, for allowing me to write this month.  PrawfsBlawg is a great institution.  I didn't get to all of my corruption stuff, so we'll save it for next time.  Until then . . .

Posted by Andy Spalding on September 30, 2011 at 09:23 AM | Permalink


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A Different Academy,
Law professors profit from the criminal fraud and help advance it. To give you a small example, the moderator of this blog deleted my posts asking the new professors to sign the law school transparency petition, and my posts articulating how publishing dishonest job placement statistics to divert federal money into their program is criminal fraud against (a) the student, (b) the taxpayer, (c) the other more deserving educational programs and (d) the nation's economy.
The moderator of this blog, as I understand, is Mr. Merkel who is a law professor. A criminal law professor of all things.
Let me ask you, is silencing those who merely speak of a crime and ask people to sign a petition against it a moral act, or a corrupt one? That's all you need to know about the zeitgeist of law school and of the law professor community.

Posted by: anon | Oct 1, 2011 3:13:08 PM

I have not been following all of the discussion about this, so I apologize if my question is answered already somewhere else. I am confused about what exactly is the charge against the law professors? I understand that law schools have allegedly been reporting false numbers for graduates' employment and for incoming students' statistics. But doesn't the fault rest with those whose job it is to report those things? Are the critics thinking that every law professor should have been checking up on those people? And how would that happen? Would they all call all of the grads to see if they really are employed? I get the hostility towards the law schools in general, but I don't see what individual law professors should have been doing that they were not.

Posted by: a different academy | Oct 1, 2011 1:53:46 PM

I had professors in law school who were my mentors. But I definitely sought them out. I also remember other of my classmates who had faculty mentors. Behind many successful teacher/ scholars are research assistants, who often work closely with profs. But It is not like graduate schools in the arts and sciences where the programs are much smaller and graduate students are supposed to be attached to an adviser who will be his or her mentor. The size of most law schools precludes that happening a lot and on anywhere near the level of a graduate program. And, of course, professors in arts and sciences grad schools are training students to become professors.

Posted by: anonymous | Sep 30, 2011 6:45:48 PM


You're asking a complicated question, but I don't think the answers are specific to law. I think it's common for academics who research and teach in a field to see themselves as distinct from practitioners who practice in it. When I was studying engineering, for example, the academics saw themselves as scientists, not designers: The day-to-day work of engineers as designers was considered insufficiently academic and theoretical to be something that professors would associate with.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 30, 2011 5:52:54 PM

"My new superiors indeed spent a bit of time mentoring me, but frankly, it wasn't much; such was not their principal job description."

This applies to legal academia in spades. Now that I'm a few years out of law school, I'm more-or-less happy with the combination of classroom and clinical education I received, and I'm perfectly happy with the set of opportunities that an honors JD from HYS gave me. But my biggest complaint about my law school experience, verbatim, would be the same as your above-quoted sentence. My professors' principal focus was on their scholarship, which left little time for mentoring.

"And only then could I see and really appreciate that my professors (at least the best of them) were truly dedicated in their capacity as teachers to my own development. Inside the academy, this was true; outside, it was not."

I'm glad that you had this experience in law school, but I did not find this to be true. Neither did most of the other practicing attorneys I know who are SATISFIED with their law school experiences. Needless to say, those who are unsatisfied with their law school experiences are still less likely to have encountered any significant number of these truly dedicated teachers during their three years of law school.

As you know, the law school system disincentivizes professors from actively mentoring their students: an effective teacher-mentor whose scholarship is not accepted for publication by sufficiently prestigious 2Ls will be passed over for tenure, while a poor teacher-mentor who provokes the right journal acceptances from 2Ls will receive tenure. Because we all know this is the current system, people who would sincerely be interested in prioritizing the teaching and mentoring of students are disincentivized from even seeking legal academic jobs. The people who seek to join the current legal academy are those whose primary interest is in scholarship -- and who stand willing to neglect their teaching and mentoring duties to the extent that these duties are in tension with their scholarly objectives.

I find your comments to be unrealistically pollyanna-ish.

Posted by: ScholarshipUberAlles | Sep 30, 2011 5:32:46 PM

It is perhaps unfair to raise this in response to your post but the one thought that came to my mind while I was reading it is: Why are law schools filled with faculty members that seem to hold the practice of law in contempt?

Posted by: Kevin Hill | Sep 30, 2011 3:58:56 PM

Mr Spalding,

So you support greater law school transparency? Did you sign the Law School Transparency Petition requesting that the ABA implement step to create greater transparency in employment statistics?



Gilman Grundy

Posted by: Gilman Grundy (AKA FOARP) | Sep 30, 2011 3:35:45 PM

"the scholarship that truly transforms how we see and govern the world"

That's a joke, right? Whatever merits their might be to legal academia, the production of relevant and important scholarship is not one of them. The few professors who do write on matters that are grounded in reality (and not "law and. . . ") are usually considered second-rate citizens within the academy.

But perhaps when you referred to transformations on how "we" see the world, you were referring only to other law professors. That's true enough, I suppose -- as was discussed on another blog recently (the conglomerate?), the new goal for an academic is to get other academics to believe his theory is right. Hardly world changing, unless your world is the academy.

Posted by: skoller | Sep 30, 2011 2:56:05 PM

So what the poster is saying is that law school is great for law professors? Nice to know you're having such a swell time, but what about the STUDENTS? You know, the people who actually make it so you get to have such a swell time being a professor?

See this:


Posted by: Just another cog | Sep 30, 2011 2:27:25 PM

Should society expect far more from law schools than it does other institutions? I by no means condone "number-fudging," but law schools are hardly the only institutions that massage numbers and take advantage of methodology to paint themselves in the best possible light. Politicians routinely overstate savings from their policy proposals or rely on unlikely assumptions about future growth. Corporations rely on accounting gimmicks to shore up their books at the end of each fiscal quarter, and conference calls with shareholders consist of little more than PR spin. Drug companies routinely tout their newest drugs as an improvement over cheaper, older models when in reality the improvements hardly justify the increased cost to consumers.

It is unfortunate that law schools have internalized much of this behavior, but can we realistically expect law schools to stand apart from the societal zeitgeist?

Posted by: MM | Sep 30, 2011 12:55:51 PM

Idealism is essential, and I share your views about the best we have to offer (although I agree with Orin's explanation). That said, citing our positive qualities, while nice to keep in mind, is not a "defense" of the conduct of law schools (and the complicity of professors through silent acquiescence) in rampant, deceptive number fudging. I have been criticizing law schools not out of self-loathing, but because I believe that we can live up to the ideals we espouse. A necessary step in that direction is accepting responsibility for our failure, and then taking collective action to solve it. Law schools are still engaging in number fudging. (I have future posts coming on this that will be shocking.) Although your comments are well meaning and admirable, this is not the time for a defense.

Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Sep 30, 2011 11:59:54 AM

Perhaps my views are quirky, but I would think it's more accurate to say that we're incredibly lucky to have jobs structured to emphasize and value these norms and ideals (creative freedom, etc.) than it is to suggest that we're great people because we have these norms and ideals.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 30, 2011 10:04:11 AM

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