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Friday, September 09, 2011

Teaching Legal Ethics with the Present Crisis in the Foreground

As I have mentioned here before, last year I found that the students in my legal ethics class (at my school it's called Legal Profession) and I were in some tension all semester, and I believe this had something to do with the job situation.  There were two aspects to this.  First, there was a broad disaffection about the class, stemming from the general view that it is pointless to study professional responsibility for jobs that one can't get in the first place.  Second, I found that more students than usual tended to say they would choose an unprofessional or dishonest course of action, for fear in any given situation (I teach a problem-based class, so students are called on to think about what they would do in various scenarios) that they would lose their clients or their jobs.  We addressed some of these issues at the end of the semester, and that was useful in bringing things to the surface, but I thought the discussion ultimately came too late.  This year, I decided to start with these issues.  For some discussion by other legal ethics professors, see this post.  (I had already decided to do so last year, so I don't think the recent fusses over the Campos blog had too much to do with it.  But like all of us, I sometimes don't get around to doing what I plan to do, and certainly the recent discussions encouraged me to make sure it happened.)

Thus, on the first and second days of class, I assigned the students some non-casebook materials: 1) a link to the Campos blog (not the optimal source of information, in my view, but I wanted students to have a sense of the emotions and anger involved, not just the facts); 2) a link to my own discussions of that blog; and 3) a link to the William Henderson article in the ABA Journal about paradigm shifts in the legal profession.  For a solid hour and a half, we discussed a host of issues: why students came to law school and what they expected to get out of it; what they now thought; debt issues; whether students relied on bad information about job prospects, median salaries, and so on; what their own job prospects are; whether their opinions about law school, the legal profession, and their own future as lawyers have been altered or chastened; what they think are right or wrong with legal education in general, and Alabama's law school in particular; and other subjects.  It was a fairly no-holds-barred discussion, and the findings were interesting, though not wholly surprising.

Students came to law school for a variety of reasons.  Some wanted strongly to be lawyers for various reasons, including real-world experience in different kinds of workplaces where they concluded that the law was crucial to various aspects of the business and that the lawyers had a central or interesting job.  Others were responding to the age-old equation that I can summarize as BA=WTF.  Quite a few saw law school as a place to wait out the recession.  Few students saw law as a way to get rich, or even saw themselves as associates or partners at big firms; but they did expect that a law degree would launch them fairly quickly into the upper middle class, the professional-managerial class.  

By now (the fall of their second or third years of law school), some of their expectations had changed.  They had seen many friends and classmates struggling to find jobs after graduation.  They felt some disaffection as a result of grading--not just receiving lower grades than they were used to, but the feeling that the difference between, say, a B and a B+ was somewhat arbitrary, and that a huge additional investment of time and study might or might not result in a marginal uptick in grades.  They were not necessarily outraged by or disappointed in their professors, but they did feel that they were still not adequately prepared to practice law, especially on their own.  They felt often that law school was simply part II of their undergraduate degree rather than a distinctly different professional education--one good reason, I think, why law students ought to work or do something else for at least a couple of years before heading to law school.  I've noted that many students hadn't planned to go to big firms after graduation; but they were disappointed to find that when they arrived in law school, biglaw became and was treated as a kind of default assumption--as the place that a successful student is "supposed" to want to go to.  The law school did not, in their view, give a good enough sense of what other possibilities might be out there.  

The biggest, most widely held criticism was not with the professors or the administration but with the career services office.  I'm not trying to bad-mouth my friends and colleagues in our own career services office, and I will note from experience at about a half-dozen law schools that it is almost a universal truth that students across the nation, from Harvard to TJ, have complaints about their jobs offices.  It's the specifics of the criticism that interest me.  Students felt that the top five percent of the class received a disproportionate amount of the resources of the career services office, while the rest of the student body received very little assistance.  They felt, in other words, that the usefulness of the career services office was an all-or-nothing proposition depending on whether one was at the top of the class or not.  

Finally, what I found striking was the sense among my students, not that they would never receive a job in general or a legal job in particular, but of what that meant for them.  They had never seen law jobs as a path to wealth, but now they no longer saw them even as a path to the relative security of the professional upper middle class.  They now realized that a good deal more struggle and entrepreneurialism, with attendant risk, would be needed to achieve that kind of economic status--and, in my experience, law schools usually draw relatively non-entrepreneurial and risk-averse individuals who are uncomfortable with that level of insecurity.  (Or maybe I'm projecting, since I was a relatively non-entrepreneurial and risk-averse law student and person.  I contrast this with many of the lawyers I know from my father's generation.  Not coincidentally, they were Jews at a time when the large law firms still didn't take too many of them; right from the beginning, they needed and had a sense of entrepreneurialism that allowed them to make their own way in practice, and that ultimately changed the world of big firms and of the legal profession in general a great deal.)  

Except for their strong feelings about the career services office, I would not describe the sentiment among most of my students as anger, outrage, a sense of betrayal or having been lied to, and so on.  (There were one or two exceptions.)  It was, rather, a broader sense of rootlessness, fear, apathy, and disaffection.  Not everyone shared even those views; some continue to love the law and law school, feel good about their choices, and are eager to get out there, even with the knowledge that the economy is rough.  But many did.  Among other things, this sense of disaffection was important because it influenced their choices concerning how to "do" law school.  Given what they thought about, for instance, the arbitrariness of grades, they were more likely to turn to commercial outlines and other short-cuts.  They thought the rewards for delving more seriously into legal study would be marginal, and that taking short-cuts would at least give them a reasonable payoff in grades for a reasonable investment in time.  Moreover, given their frame of mind, they weren't much inclined to treat law school as a deep intellectual exercise anyway.  (I make no strong claims here that law school is a deep intellectual exercise--only that these students were certainly less likely to treat it that way.)   

We also talked about solutions.  After all, what's the point of endless complaint without ever talking about solutions?  Although some of our discussion involved global solutions to global problems, most of them were more local.  They obviously want the career office to focus more on the non-top students, and on routes to employment that aren't just about big firms.  They would like more practical teaching and experience.  In particular, they want the freedom to specialize much earlier; our school, like many, has a fairly strong set of expectations and/or requirements about what students take, and they wanted more flexibility to tailor their education to fit their job interests.  They wanted more classes on how to start and run a solo or small practice.  

Interestingly, given the recent discussions elsewhere, they also talked powerfully about personal responsibility.  I don't mean by this that they let the law school off the hook for its own failings, or thought their difficulty finding jobs was purely their own fault.  I mean that they concluded, sometimes quite eloquently and very much in reaction to some of what they were hearing from the discussion, that they also had a role to play too, and had to take personal responsibility for it.  In particular, they concluded that they had to start taking more personal responsibility for their own disaffection and apathy.  If they found law school a bit of a chore and fairly dull, they saw that some of this had to do with their tendency to treat it as a mechanical exercise best done as efficiently as possible, for instance by using commercial outlines rather than reading and thinking about cases.  They suggested that they should take some responsibility for treating it that way, and either devote more intellectual and emotional energy to the enterprise or accept that some of their unhappiness and disaffection would be of their own making.  They felt that they ought to admit and confront that some of how little they got out of law school had to do with how little they were putting into it.  They felt that they had to take more control of their own education, to the extent that this was possible.

I'm not suggesting that this is a complete recounting of their conclusions and feelings; my students are certainly welcome to chime in to disagree, elaborate, or amend what I've written here.  It certainly gives me food for thought about some practical fixes: changes to the nature of the career services office, focusing on offering advice and support to the many students who won't get much out of the on-campus interview process; giving students more flexibility to choose their own course of study and specialize in particular practice areas; and making a wider degree of practical courses available.  (I should note two things here.  First, Alabama has a very good record of making clinical opportunities available to most interested students rather than limiting clinical slots to just a few students.  Second, our own career services dean, on his own initiative, is now teaching a course on small law-office practice and management.)  

The level of interest and engagement I've had in class this semester confirms for me that it was a good idea to begin the class this way.  And, without wanting to engage in what some see (sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly) as blaming the victim, it is clear that many students are thinking about what they themselves bring to law school, and how they can and should take responsibility for bringing a sense of engagement to their own education.  I think this is an important thing to talk about with them, while still thinking about and addressing global and structural problems.  

I'll conclude by saying that in addition to concerns about fairness and full disclosure, I had my own pedagogical goals in starting the semester this way.  Legal ethics can be an interesting class to teach, and in its own way quite practical: students who practice law (and that is most of our graduates) will do all kinds of different things, but all of them will face questions of professional responsibility.  That's especially true for those who will be practicing on their own: who will be, say, managing client trust accounts, without a network of bosses and mentors to assist them.  The class becomes much less interesting, however, if students think of it as a chore from the outset, and are unwilling to take seriously the problems and hypotheticals in which they ask themselves what they would do as lawyers in particular circumstances.  And it becomes downright worrisome if students make clear that they will be inclined to make unethical choices in different circumstances.  Even if they're right that doing so may help them keep the first client or the first job, it suggests a failure of long-term thinking: about their long-term reputations, about what those reputations will say about whether they get a third or fourth job and what kind of job it will be; about developing a good set of personal and professional habits; and about finding a sense of personal satisfaction in their careers.  

So I made a kind of bargain with my students.  For my part, I have told them that we will continue to discuss these issues and to think about how they affect their views on legal ethics.  I have also promised that I will serve as a conduit and an advocate, making sure that my colleagues and the administration know of their dissatisfactions and about the things they would like to see change.  I have asked them in return to commit to the class: to do their best to ask seriously how they would act, and how they should act, in various professional responsibility circumstances, rather than simply disengaging from the class or offering pat or cynical answers, and to participate actively in class discussion.  

Every year and every class is different, so I can't say that this bargain is responsible for any changes in the classroom atmosphere.  But so far, I must say that I have been very pleased with the class, and I think many students have been pleased as well.  (This may also have something to do with my decision to ban laptops in the class this semester!)  They have been active and engaged in class discussion, have offered thoughtful answers, and have incorporated concerns about the economy into their answers while still remembering that they will have genuine obligations to their clients, and ought to care about doing their jobs with integrity and building a solid reputation, brick by brick.  I respect and admire these students greatly and have been genuinely grateful for what they've been bringing to class.  

Comments are welcome, with the caveat that anonymous comments are certainly permitted but vulgar and/or uncivil comments are not.  I would especially love to hear from my own students, from other students who are taking or have taken legal ethics in recent years, and from legal ethics teachers.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 9, 2011 at 10:38 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Jim, I teach these issues from the point of view of the students' lives and finances, not as a policy debate among legal academicians. The latter approach, it seems to me, just recapitulates the very problem we're trying to solve. I always get a lot of positive feedback from the talks and even get invited to present in semesters when I'm not teaching. And I blend (sneak?) a lot of the financial information into the concrete hypos that deliver the black letter law they're always demanding.

Posted by: John Steele | Sep 14, 2011 1:29:17 PM


I was inspired by this post to do the same thing in my class at our first session on Monday morning. Maybe it's because it was 9:00am on a Monday, maybe it's because University at Buffalo Law has among the lowest tuitions and debt rates in the US, but the students seemed generally bored by the whole thing, and getting them to react to the Campos blog was like pulling teeth.

I assigned the Campos blog ahead of class, and after classroom discussion of that, lectured on Henderson's ABAJ piece (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/paradigm_shift/) and Tamanaha's Balkinization post (http://balkin.blogspot.com/2010/06/wake-up-fellow-law-professors-to.html). I tried to use those two pieces, as well as some of Ribstein's work, to talk about the kind of legal careers they will be facing in the future and lead into the question, "Is ethics a luxury?" (Answer: no.)

I also ask for weekly feedback on my classes using an anonymous Critical Incident Questionnaire to ask five questions:
1. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
2. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?
3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming and helpful?
4. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
5. What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be something about your own reactions to what went on, or something that someone did, or anything else that occurs to you.)

I'm still waiting for more CIQs to come in, but so far the comments on the Campos discussion are negative (not to mention surprising in what messages they took away from the discussion):
"I felt most distanced during the discussion on how best to control which law schools are allowed to exist."
"Why aren't we discussing ethics as it relates to the MPRE? A prep course would be more useful then a discussion on how law school makes us feel."
"Policy discussions that are not useful in practice, such as the law school scam blog and the discussion regarding restriction of new law schools. Articles like these could be posted but left for us to read at our leisure."

I wonder what kinds of responses other teachers had?

Posted by: Jim Milles | Sep 13, 2011 12:33:45 PM

@John Steele/3:33 p.m.:

The U.S. Government shows no signs of modifying its loan guarantees to undergraduates and graduates in any field (some worse off than law, God help them), even though it effectively admits that those guarantees are losing money (e.g., IBR). Of all the irrational legal education market's partial solutions, transparency is the only one totally within the control of the industry. Through the law school career services offices, NALP already collects enough information to bring about most of what the transparency advocates seek, and the cost of adding new fields to that questionnaire data set is trivial. All that's lacking is the will.

The net result everyone wants is something like fewer dollars chasing fewer law degrees, leading in turn to fewer graduates chasing a static or shrinking pool of jobs requiring a JD. If law schools adopt serious transparency reform, they can tell themselves and an aggrieved public that they've done all they can. The rest is up to consumers and Congress.

Posted by: John | Sep 10, 2011 4:13:13 PM

John, I won't belabor it, but I did want to respond to your second post by saying that in my view transparency will help enormously but won't guarantee a truly rational market (because of too-easy-credit, the inherent prestige-chasing that drives law students and law faculty, and the incentives of law schools).

Posted by: John Steele | Sep 10, 2011 3:33:31 PM

I should also mention that Indiana has had a 4-credit PR course, coupled with weekly panel discussions from practicing lawyers from many fields, in which we covered issues you mentioned above. And I gave extended talks on the economics of private practice and on how disaggregation/globalization would affect students, etc. If you teach PR and are interested in the slide decks, email me.

Posted by: John Steele | Sep 10, 2011 2:52:56 PM

Paul, I assume you're asking me (and not the other "John" who posted above). I'm having trouble finding it, but it's my recollection that Miami's dean sent a fairly frank letter to applicants/admittees about good and bad reasons for enrolling and about the odds that students would be faced by disappointing job prospects upon graduation. The letter is referenced here:


My larger point is that the absence of false and misleading stats is legally necessary, offering transparent stats ought to be the norm, but even if we reach that point, we'll still have structural problems, given the easy credit and current structure of legal education.

Posted by: John Steele | Sep 10, 2011 2:44:38 PM

@John Steele/1:50 p.m.:

I think that transparency is key to reducing that over-investment.

In a world of perfect information, School A can state that 70% of its graduates found full-time employment for a firm or government agency, in a job requiring a JD. Another 15% found full-time employment in a job not requiring a JD. Another 10% decided to get another graduate degree, and 5% have not replied. At the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles, School A's graduates report salaries of $48,000, $62,000 and $104,000. 88% of those employed reported salary data.

On the other hand, School B can only state that 45% of its graduates found full-time employment for a firm or government agency in a job requiring a JD, with another 10% reporting full-time employment outside the law. 20% of School B's students decided to get LL.Ms, 10% are not employed but working as sole practitioners. 15% have not replied. At the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles, School B's graduates report salaries of $27,000, $49,000 and $79,000. 52% of those employed reported salary data.

In such a world, School B would be hard-pressed to charge as much tuition as School A. Unfortunately, we live in this world, and School B can do exactly that because it can hide behind aggregation of job and salary data.

Posted by: John | Sep 10, 2011 2:27:50 PM

John, could you say more about what Miami is doing?

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 10, 2011 1:53:40 PM

John, I agree, and assume that everyone agrees, that the use of false or misleading stats would violate the MRPC and more. We already know that one school admitted to that, and a few others are now defendants in civil lawsuits on that issue.

Some schools, such as Miami, have taken pro-active steps to alert students to the statistics you mention.

Even if we achieve total transparency on the stats, we may have some structural issues to deal with. For example, if loans are federally guaranteed and non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, presumably we will continue to see too many students taking out too many loans to go to law school. Lenders and law schools would have incentives to assist in that over-investment.

Posted by: John Steele | Sep 10, 2011 1:50:38 PM

Why not work with primary source material, instead of blog posts filtering it?

I suggest you devote a class to the Preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. After you go over the language of paragraph 2, you could compare the most recently reported employment statistics for your school with your students' experiences, particularly claims regarding the number of students employed and their expected starting salaries.

How much did it matter to students what the reported median salaries and rates of employment were, as listed in U.S. News/NALP/other sources? Would they have thought (or did they think) that a reported median starting salary was something that the median graduate could attain, or did they know that the median starting salary was likely far lower? Did the median starting salary convince them the vast majority of graduates typically found jobs practicing law? Do they believe that their school made every reasonable effort to inform them of their possibilities, and explain the practical implications thereof?

Posted by: John | Sep 10, 2011 12:58:08 PM

Kudos to you, Professor Hurwitz, for having the courage and ethical backbone to teach our young aspiring lawyers that the legal academy itself is flawed and itself not complied to the ethical obligations to which we would like to think the profession aspires. For some time, I have been among the too few who have been advocating that it is amoral imperative of the academy to convey the information and materials you have provided to your students. (See, for example, http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2010/07/25/what-if-they-built-a-new-law-school-and-nobody-came/ ).

As the semester progresses, I would respectfully suggest that your students also gain a full understanding of what life as a law firm associate is really like: It is too often not a very pretty picture: http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2011/04/18/it-shouldn%e2%80%99t-suck-to-be-an-associate-at-a-law-firm/

Jerry Kowalski

Posted by: Jerome Kowalski | Sep 10, 2011 12:02:56 PM

I am on the market for a tenure-track position and am really starting to wonder whether it is wise to enter law academia on the verge of such needed structural change, where as Fred Smith rightly points out, there just is not the demand for lawyers. Therefore, to correct the situation, we need to produce less lawyers, which means lowering class size or closing schools, both of which do not bode well for trying to become a professor, especially at a tier 3-4 school. Maybe I should move this discussion to other discussion board (and think I will). Do any wannabe profs have this worry? I really do want to be a professor but am also worried about job security. Is this fear misplaced? (In full disclosure, I also have no AALS interviews so far so maybe this is an unconscious self-defense mechanism).

Posted by: on the market | Sep 10, 2011 11:11:43 AM

To me, the most important issue is the lack of demand for legal services relative to the supply of graduates. This is an old problem, older than the recession, its now gotten much worse. There are a number of obvious reasons why this would happen. Law is glorified on TV, law is available without any undergrad prerequisites, law is thought to pay well, and is thought to bring social prestige. Law school itself seems like a fun and exciting way to spend 3 years, espcially if it is part of a smart career plan, as people think it is. It is easy to see why supply would eventually come to outpace demand, particularly because the market's way of sending this signal (low salaries and unemployment) isn't recieved until after graduation, or at least, until after 1L year starts, and by that time its too late to back out for a number of reasons, many psychological.

So demand is outstripping supply, and has been for years, but now, with the recession, the problem is really bad. There is really no way to solve this problem short of shutting down schools or decreasing class size.

That's really the only solution. All of the typical solutions like "network more" "go solo" or "get creative" are useless when there is no demand. The career services office really isn't at fault here, either. They can't do anything about the lack of demand. They could perhaps be more frank about the lack of demand, but they can't make manufacture demand.

Most law profs are now willing to admit that if you don't want to practice, you shouldn't go to law school. But any genuine solution to the employment problem is going to have to focus on placing grads in non-legal careers because the legal market is completely saturated and no amount of creativity or planning is going to get around that.

This is something that career offices might be able to help with, if they changed their focus towards investigating non-legal career options and maybe even did some networking of their own to get out there and sell their grads to non-legal employers. Contrary to popular belief, law grads aren't broadly marketable outside of law. There are stigmas attached to law grads seeking non legal employment. They are flaky, they are losers, they aren't serious, etc. Maybe law schools could somehow act to address these stigmas and help employers see that, in 2011, there are lots of non-loser law grads on the market who would make for fine employees. Of course, in this economy, who knows how helpful even that would be.

Posted by: Fred Smith | Sep 10, 2011 10:04:47 AM

Bill, given what I've written about things like this before, it behooves me to point out that it wasn't especially brave of me to start the class this way, especially given my tenured status.* That said, I appreciate your kind words. Some critics have suggested that it is necessary to give some kind of honest talk to students before they start as 1Ls, and that seems right to me; I should note in fairness to myself that, this year at least, I did discuss some of these issues with my 1L student advisees on the first day of class or so. Let me add that I was certainly very glad to have your article to assign to my ethics students, and I hope they paid close attention to it.

As to the question whether high-tier law professors should advocate the closing down of lower-tier law schools: without offering some firm answer here, I can say that the latest round of discussions is certainly not the first I've heard of the notion. Among other things, my wife served on a California bar committee several years ago with oversight over the unaccredited law schools there, so those broader issues have been on my mind for a while; and I believe I wrote in one of the last rounds of comments that the professor salary issue probably should really seen as a question of the oversupply of law schools. Now, I've taught at both high-tier and low-tier schools, and I know there are potential values to those schools. Some of those schools are certainly more practically oriented in their teaching, more given to experimentation with educational formats in a way that responds to student needs, and more broadly still serve as "opportunity schools" that help democratize entry to the profession. But yes, in short, I think a fair argument can be made that we would be better off with fewer law schools. Whether that would best be achieved through a movement by high-tier law professors, or whether that approach would come off as more top-tier condescension to lower-tier students and professors alike, is a strategic question you might want to consider.

* The only thing that worries me about my post is that I did not want to come off as hostile to my colleagues in the career services office. They are human beings too, after all. I'll reiterate two points that I made before and add a third: 1) dissatisfaction with career services offices is endemic to law schools and not unique to my institution; 2) my own career services dean is clearly thinking about what students want, given that he took the initiative of teaching a law office management course to help train small and solo practitioners; and 3) I don't know that much about the office here, and it may have other programs aimed at responding to current student needs. Nevertheless, I was trying to honestly report my students' complaints and felt I absolutely had to discuss this one. OCI programs have inherent limitations, and I'd love to hear from other career services offices out there about their own ways of trying to accommodate the particular needs of students outside the to 10 percent. One possibility that occurred to me while I was teaching the class was to create five- or six-student "teams" and meet with them on a regular basis, starting early in law school, to help each of them formulate a job plan. I'm sure there are other ideas out there.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 10, 2011 7:12:48 AM


This was a brave way to begin your class. And thanks for sharing all you learned. I will continue to check back to hear from your students.

I think the legal profession is on the brink of a significant structural shift -- I say this based on data. U.S. law office employment has declined since 2004 (albeit slightly, but it breaks decades of slow steady growth). In the meantime, law school enrollment has gone up 7% as 12 more law schools have opened their doors.

There is a serious market disconnect between the production of new lawyers and entry level jobs that pay a decent wage. There are a plethora of legal vendors who are figuring out how to automate or re-engineer traditional legal work. Law is an input; the value-add is primarily non-legal expertise. For the U.S. economy has a whole, these are garden variety examples of innovation and increased productivity. But for lawyers, it is the beginning of a sea change.

In the meantime, the federal government has taken the position that it will finance the full cost of a traditional legal education (including living expenses) through direct loans made through the U.S. Department of Education. This routinely produces law school graduates with $100K to $160K in law school debt. With this kind of cash, law schools can operate as if nothing has changed.

Yet, these trend lines are unsustainable. In two years (maybe one, maybe three), every law professor is going to wish they had talked sooner and more honestly about the elephant. Paul, I hope your blog post will be the tipping point.

Posted by: Bill Henderson | Sep 10, 2011 2:51:45 AM

There is a social pressure to claim law school was difficult. This pressure comes even (especially?) from those who never attended. To do otherwise is seen as arrogant. There is a similar norm with respect to the bar, which really isn't all *that* difficult.

I personally both enjoyed law school and did not find it terribly difficult. Nonetheless I do strongly advise anyone I meet against going. But that is because of the difficulty of finding a job, and the quality of the available jobs. About the only reasonable jobs available in terms of: interesting work, decent pay and somewhat reasonable hours are tenured or tenure track law professor and some judges.

Posted by: Brad | Sep 9, 2011 11:00:08 PM

One last question for you esteemed professors that I never understood, and I would sincerely hope that this question can have its own post.

Why don't professors from top schools advocate for the shutdown of lower ranked schools? Here's why I think you should do that: If the lower ranked schools shut down, the supply and demand imbalance would be cured and those who graduate from law school will find jobs. If graduates find jobs, then law school administrators and professors will no longer be accused of running a "scam" operation. The law professors who remain would gain a significant boost in their reputation, and possibly self esteem.

Why hasn't this debate ever turned into a battle between top law school professor vs. low ranked law school professor?

Posted by: anon | Sep 9, 2011 10:22:35 PM

"I remember when I was a 1L, a lot of my classmates expected that they would get very high-paying jobs working 30 hours a week arguing international human rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. When it became clear that these jobs didn't exist, and only the "top" students could even get close, there were a lot of disaffected students. And this was at Harvard when the legal economy was booming."

Mr. Kerr, I hope that is not a subtle attempt to marginalize the current crop of disgruntled law students by analogizing their very valid complaints to the above frivolous complaint.

Posted by: anon | Sep 9, 2011 10:15:31 PM

It's astonishing how persistently professors attempt to sidestep the issue of fraudulent career placement statistics. Every post by a law professor seeks to take the attention away from this very simple (primitive really) and egregious form of fraud and onto some other topics.

In this article, rather than say, "My students soon realized that the career placement statistics published by law schools were manipulated and misleading, and done so on purpose to induce them into taking out loans to attend the school. The degree of fraud was such that it may have gotten the S.E.C. involved in criminal proceedings had such misstatements occured in a public statement by a company with investors. Unable to achieve the level of cognitive dissonance required to live with this relevation, and viewing me as part of the establishment, they lost any faith in my ability to teach them ethics." -- rather than say that you say something along the lines of "My students did not value ethics because they didn't think they could get jobs where they would use such ethics, and because they did not want to risk losing clients over ethical matters."

That's very clever but we still see the elephant in the room. Fix your career placement statistics law schools. That's all you need to do.

Posted by: anon | Sep 9, 2011 10:13:38 PM


I'm another HLS alum who graduated in a great economy, and I'm very happy with my career. I also share your recollection that HLS students - even in boom times - found lots to complain about, both trivial and otherwise. Heck, my class was among those who complained to Dean Kagan that we needed free coffee in the library from 10 PM to 2 AM, because we had no convenient source of coffee within 15-20 minutes' walk of the library. (She agreed, being the awesome dean that she was.) Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...Harvard problems!

So yes, HLS surely has students who are disgruntled because (1) their law school tuition is not free; (2) their law school grades are lower than their undergraduate grades; (3) they haven't discovered the magic position that will allow them to work 30 hpw in support of human rights while making big firm salaries; (4) Massachusetts weather is cold; (5) no one is paying off their student loans; (6) biglaw is fun for almost no one; (7) they/their favorite demographic got reamed in the school parody; (8) OCS/OPIA - while both helpful career services offices - do not function as job fairies or life coaches. That many HLS students are thus disaffected really has very little to do with the serious concerns of students at lower-ranked schools who are graduating without any opportunity to put their legal skills to work. In conflating the two, you come off as oversimplistic and dismissive, whether or not that is your intent.

I fully agree with Professor Horwitz that the discourse on this topic needs to include both infrastructural reforms and increased personal responsibility. The latter conversations need to occur at every level, from the disaffected would-be "human rights lawyers" at Harvard to the fourth-tier graduate who went to law school without a clearer vision than "avoiding the recession" and "what else do I do with my BA in history?" Possibly at HYS, the only necessary conversations are about "personal responsibility" and "reduced whining." But outside the privileged perch of top-ranked law schools, infrastructural/administrative reforms are also needed - particularly with respect to accurate, forthright disclosures to students *prior to matriculation* concerning what opportunities a JD from their school will offer them.

Posted by: HLS | Sep 9, 2011 10:02:34 PM

Being the kind of guy I am, I totally want to avoid a protracted argument about this -- when I'm in the mood for a fight I just head on over to the VC comments -- so I'll just say thank you for your kind words, add that in my experience Orin is one of the great guys, and leave it at that. Cheers.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 9, 2011 9:25:43 PM

Horwitz, with this you prove that you are one of the good guys. Kerr proves again that he's not.

Posted by: Fred Smith | Sep 9, 2011 8:44:50 PM

Very interesting, Paul. Thanks for posting.

I also agree with Noah Jones that students have always complained about law school. I remember when I was a 1L, a lot of my classmates expected that they would get very high-paying jobs working 30 hours a week arguing international human rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. When it became clear that these jobs didn't exist, and only the "top" students could even get close, there were a lot of disaffected students. And this was at Harvard when the legal economy was booming.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 9, 2011 5:09:37 PM

Good summary of the class, the comments made and their tenor. A couple of points about the class and the broader issue: 1) With the exception of law professors, I've met few law graduates (of any age) that don't participate in the usual gnashing of teeth about how terrible law school is. It is though it is simply an expected response to someone mentioning law school (is there some covenant you sign prior to being allowed to graduate that requires moanig about law school?). On a related note, a similar response is given by lawyers when confronted with individuals who want to become lawyers (Oh, don't be a lawyer! Do anything but that!). (Yes, I am using a ridiculous number of parenthetical statements!) So, my point is that the propensity to complain about law school is nearly universal and it occurs in both good and bad economies. That being said, many of the complaints are legitimate and need addressing. 2) I think that the approach of dealing with the elephant in the room was extremely helpful an not just because we are partial to elephants at Alabama. By facing these tough issues head-on, space has been created for us to openly and maybe a little less cynically discuss the class material. I'm glad we got that initial discussion out of the way and I think and hope it will lead to a more fulfilling class experience.

Posted by: Noah Jones | Sep 9, 2011 11:46:22 AM

Professor Horwitz, thanks for doing this. Very insightful. I often wish more faculty would engage in this issues in such a direct and meaningful way.

One point. Without much experience with the bar or the academy, law students often lack a deeper understanding of the structural challenges to the profession and legal education. They focus on the immediate and the personal: I can't get a job, career services isn't working for me, the grading seems arbitrary, which frustrates my attempt to improve my own carer prospect through improved academic standing. It's only later that students learn of the disconnect between the academy and the bench and bar, or how the salaries available do not support the debt incurred to attend law school.

Posted by: David Conrad | Sep 9, 2011 11:18:00 AM

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