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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The AALS Conference and the Law School Crisis

Tomorrow I'm off to DC for the annual AALS conference.  For those unfamiliar with it, it is an annual occasion on which law professors from across the country gather together to sit in hotel lobbies, checking their Iphones and surreptitiously glancing at other people's conference badges.  They also occasionally, and mostly accidentally, attend panels.  (The obvious exception here is the Law and Religion Section, which always has superb programs.  This year's is on how blasphemy is dealt with in various countries.  The Section is also co-sponsoring with the state and local government law section a terrific panel on the impact of RLUIPA on state and local governments, featuring the always entertaining pairing of Douglas Laycock and Marci Hamilton.)  

I have been wondering about whether and how the experience of the conference should be any different for the fact of all the attention devoted recently to the law school crisis--and, more important, not just the attention devoted to it but the crisis itself.  That includes, obviously, things like the Campos blog and so on, and the increased attention that many former students are paying to the doings of law school professors.  But, again, it means most centrally the actual facts of the crisis: concerns about law school dishonesty and lack of transparency, about the fate of former law students, about the misuse of entry scholarships for students and upper-year transfers, and so on.  

Since I have never disdained the role of scholarship in law schools, I'm unwilling to suggest that there is anything wrong about attending a conference to discuss issues of legal theory and so on, even in the midst of what I think can genuinely be called a crisis.  I won't dwell too much on whether there is an irony or worse in hanging out on law schools' dime, eating good food and carousing or networking with friends (and discussing, say, income inequality and other social injustices), while many former students go without jobs--except perhaps for those law professors who self-righteously condemn that kind of behavior in others, berating one President or another for golfing while Baghdad burns or New Orleans floods; they have every reason to question their own behavior.  I'm not one for sackcloth and ashes; but that doesn't mean there ought to be no room for a little self-reflection.

I will say that there are many programs on this year's schedule that are relevant to the law school crisis, and that law professors should seriously consider leaving their chairs in the lobby and attending some of them.  I will also express my strong regret that the AALS rejected a number of "hot topics" proposals that would have discussed these matters (including one that I was involved in), although I'm unwilling to ascribe any motives to it in rejecting those proposals.  Certainly there is no good reason for us not to fully inform ourselves not only about present conditions, but also about the many genuine efforts that various individuals and institutions have made to reform the system--and also about the efforts some institutions have made to resist reform, and the many schools that continue to game the system in whole or in part.  

Lastly, the "scamblogs" are often full of former students complaining, in a decidedly Judean People's Front-like fashion, that less talk and more direct action is needed.  For those folks, protest is always an option: I doubt it would do much good, but they could always adopt as their slogan "Occupy the Marriott Wardman Park Washington Hotel."  (For those who are interested, the conference takes place between Wednesday and Sunday at that hotel.)  Many law professors enjoy mixing their attendance at the AALS with a little picketing, given the labor issues that often surround these conferences; I see no reason why students inclined to protest the law schools should deprive themselves of a like opportunity.    

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 3, 2012 at 09:58 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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A professor do all of the things he does best in the classroom and at the same time refuse to participate in indulgences such as this conference. A professor could even let it be known that he was doing so as an act of protest against the misleading job and salary statistics published by his school. All but a few schools are known to do that.

Law professors do not want this to be their problem, I understand. But just imagine for a moment how things might change if every professor responded to these issues with the enthusiasm of a Campos (or even a Horwitz). Law professors united in real opposition to these practices would generate the publicity required to force reform. Law professors are uniquely situated to make the most compelling case for reform, because they can not be dismissed as loser graduates, because they would be speaking against their own financial interests, and because they are generally considered to be good and smart people worth listening to.

You CAN be the ones making the case for this. You don't have to sit on the sidelines and let Law School Transparency or some class action plaintiffs do it, it could be you. And doing so wouldn't interfere with your ability to help in the classroom either, you could do both.

Posted by: Fred Smith | Jan 7, 2012 9:48:52 AM


I also submitted what I thought was a very strong Hot Topic panel proposal which, like the one you would have been on, was rejected. See http://wingsandravioli.com/2012/01/05/too-hot-for-aals/. I imagine there were others. Knowing that, the remark by Prager in http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/01/05/law-schools-gather-dc-annual-conference that "there was not a strong proposal for a session on the legal education crisis" seems disingenuous.

Posted by: Jim Milles | Jan 5, 2012 7:35:22 PM

One point I failed to make above is that while attendance at this and similar conferences is part of the compensation package, it isn't the same from the school's perspective as just increasing salaries or other benefits the amount of the expense. For reasons that are obvious (but debatable in scope), the school benefits when its professors attend these events. Thus, even if most professors would prefer an increase in salary, it is not surprising that some of the professors' compensation would go toward paying for attendance at conferences.

With regard to the market being broken, I am not sure that we can say that the market is either perfect or broken. It isn't a 0 or 1 proposition. Like any market, there are factors that keep prices from instantaneously adjusting as they should. And when the government gets involved (as they do here with loans), there are distortions. But these issues exist in a lot of markets, and we wouldn't typically urge the market participants to feel guilty.

While there are obvious concerns about students taking out loans and having trouble finding jobs, the best course is not for a professor to donate part of his or her compensation package back to the school. Indeed, that would do very little. Instead, the professor should focus on what he or she does best--preparing students for the legal market, as it is. That might mean adjusting teaching methods, or preparing some law students for jobs outside of law. That also might mean working harder with your contacts to set your students up for jobs after graduation. I imagine many professors are already doing this. It isn't a perfect solution that will fix everything, but it will do a lot more than feeling guilty about attending a conference.

Posted by: Jarod Bona | Jan 5, 2012 10:39:14 AM

In this climate, the traditional joking about the AALS does ring hollow; the concern about CLE for practitioners attending, though, is a new one on me, and quite subtle.

I'd urge the AALS to consider ratcheting back on the length of the event to reduce expenses, and to reduce substantially the conference fee; and cancel the blinking Gala, for goodness' sake. Also would urge schools to set low caps on reimbursable expenses and to ask those attending to specify which sessions they attended and for how long, at peril of not permitting return. And urge professors not to attend unless they can explain to themselves honestly how it benefits not just them, but also their institutions and students, and recall those reasons a month hence. Ill-attended panels should march into the hall and conscript attendees or lose the spot for next year.

Someone above said that but for the opportunity for a boondoggle, a school "may have to increase salaries or other benefits to attract the quality professors that it seeks to hire." I say try it. Alternatively, offer your faculty half of the expected cost in a stipend if they stay home and write or grade, and send the other half to financial aid. See how they behave. Almost everyone wins.

Posted by: Me | Jan 4, 2012 11:37:33 PM

That's all well and good, but the market is broken. The "buyers" (students) are 20-22 year old kids who often have little understanding of the meaning of $150,000 in non-dischargable student loan debt. The "sellers" (schools) provide, at best, hopeful, and at worst, falsified, information to the buyers in order to skew their decisionmaking away from equilibrium and toward more "purchasing" (enrollment and matriculation). The "funding" (the government and private lenders) provide loans that can NEVER be discharged in bankruptcy or otherwise unshackled from the borrowers. Oh, and any private lender's debt is guaranteed by Uncle Sam.

I think it's plain to see who gets short shrift and who is living high on the hog.

Posted by: KC | Jan 4, 2012 8:29:15 PM

I agree for the most part with Dan. I'm unwilling, however, to say that people are stupid to be angry about expenditures of this kind by Drexel or anyone else. I just think the anger, and the "quid pro quo" suggestion, are overstated.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 4, 2012 9:17:40 AM

Thanks for the comment, Voodoo. I have no brief for the AALS--hell, I criticized it in the post. It may indeed need to do better on this. Let me add a word of *possible* defense and a comment. 1) The conference rarely gets non-profs; the profs will attend (some!) panels regardless; and most of them have understandably have no problem filling CLE requirements. In those circumstances, leaving it to the individual profs *may* be more efficient, or at least not outrageous. Noneof which is meant to dismiss your complaint! But...2) Given that, in addition to the CLE facilitation I noted in the earlier comment (some of yor readers may have assumed that the AALS does *nothing* by way of CLE), I think it's harder to draw strong conclusions on this single basis about a law school/profession gap. Of course that gap does exist, but I'm not sure the AALS/CLE question is really Exhibit A. I'd add to that that most conferences AT law schools I've attended (including all of them at Alabama), no matter how theoretical and academic they are, do a good job of ensuring state CLE credit. It may be that the AALS must do a better job, but (as usual) I'd like to cool the temperature and add a slight leavening perspective about how outraged we should be. Again, though, I appreciate your forceful yet civic perspective and your bringing a practicing lawyer's perspective to a question I hadn't thought about before. (And I would note that protesters can always protest outside without paying the admission fee!)

Best wishes.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 4, 2012 9:15:20 AM

Since Paul has decided to engage the stupid comment about Drexel, let me just add that Drexel is one of scores of schools that are hosting receptions that are open to law profs from around the country, and that Drexel's tab will turn out to be significantly lower than the various receptions hosted by other schools (fancy and non-fancy, public and private). Most other schools are having receptions with food and drinks and are paying rental fees to the hotel where the conference is, not to mention labor too. So Drexel gets a better deal, and more publicity to trumpet its recent accomplishment, which makes Drexel one of the savvy schools...

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 4, 2012 8:27:05 AM


While I understand that CLE sign-in sheets are available at AALS (I read the 200+ program cover to cover as I originally hoped to go), the organization and its event planners have not done the due dilligence to ensure compliance with individual state MCLE requirements. If I may speak for the other posters here, I think that is the rub. I've been to plenty of ABA sponsored events with attendees from myriad jurisdictions. At each of them, ABA ensures that the paperwork is "straight" and that state credit is authorized/approved for attendees. It's not just the ABA either - I've seen this at Federal Bar Association conferences as well as American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics events.

To me, AALS' inability/unwillingness to ensure compliance/reporting with state MCLE events is a big deal. To members of the practicing bar or those who work in government, this is a glaring shortcoming. AALS should endeavor to "fix" this next year.

I live in DC about 10 blocks from the Marriott and seriously toyed with the idea of attending the conference. I'm not an academic, but I do have a deep and growing interest in the unfolding "trainwreck" that is American legal education - particularly from the ethical, economic and social cost angles. While work requirements and a newborn at home will preclude my attendance this year, I must say that paying over $500 for the conference without an explicit guarantee that my attendance would satisfy NJ's new MCLE requirements gave me great pause.

Posted by: Voodoo94 | Jan 4, 2012 8:04:12 AM

I'm not as sanguine as Jarod, I admit; my post was sincere in suggesting that it's worth the attending profs thinking and worrying about these questions, and at least attending sessions that will make them better aware of these issues, especially if they still don't know much about them. That said, while I appreciate the two critical comments, I think they're overstated on the facts. CLE attendance sheets are made available for all sessions, although they don't guarantee up front that every session counts in every state. Depending on his state, that commenter at ITLSS might be eligible for plenty of CLE credit, and that effort is at least mildly facilitated by AALS. And although I get the point about Drexel and am happy to leave it up, I would say that: 1) a primary reason for Drexel's sponsorship of the blogger cocktail hour is the presence of one or more Drexel faculty on the hosting blogs; 2) its stated reason, that it's marking its recent accreditation, is facially reasonable; 3) most people who attend probably won't have the faintest idea who's paying for (some of) the drinks; 4) it's a way unofficial event; 5) a tiny percentage of the attendees would possibly be USN ballot-holders; 6) most of them will be busy marking their schools high and their peer schools lower and won't give a damn about Drexel one way or another, so even if the intention were a quid pro quo, it's a terribly ineffective and ineffectual way to do it. I consider none of these knockout punches, but taken together they present a different picture that may reasonably turn down the heat on the level of outrage one ought to feel. Again, however, I appreciate your raising the point; I'm not so much trying to refute it as to provide some relevant and leavening factual context.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 4, 2012 3:23:23 AM

It goes beyond "hanging out on law schools' dime, eating good food and carousing or networking with friends (and discussing, say, income inequality and other social injustices)."

Drexel needs these professors to rate them well in order to perform well in USNWR. Quid pro quo. This is simply lobbying- financed by the debt of students who have little hope of legal employment. That's the outrage. The unwillingness of the professoriate to even acknowledge the ethical implications is glaring.

Posted by: Someone whose future was mortgaged to pay your massive salary | Jan 4, 2012 12:11:30 AM

Jarod - I'm a fellow alum of HLS, and I have no problem with my former professors "hanging out on law schools' dime, eating good food and carousing or networking with friends (and discussing, say, income inequality and other social injustices)." They delivered a product that has opened virtually every door within the legal profession that I desire and that has allowed me to pay off my student loans without stress. They should carouse away, as far as I'm concerned.

However, as to schools whose degrees open far fewer doors: I think we can forgive their unemployed graduates - who are unable to make their minimum student loan payments - if they feel outraged that their (borrowed) tuition dollars enable the "hanging out on law schools' dime" that Horwitz describes.

As a commenter over at Campos' blog mentions, the failure of the AALS conference to offer MCLE credit underscores the disconnect between academics and their employed former-students who practice law.

Posted by: anon | Jan 3, 2012 8:42:04 PM

and discussing, say, income inequality and other social injustices

Yes, faculty salaries do come up in conversation.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 3, 2012 6:18:00 PM

I don't see any problems with enjoying yourself at this conference or any others: it is part of your compensation package. It is part of what I presume makes a teaching job attractive. If the school didn't pay for "hanging out on law schools' dime, eating good food and carousing or networking with friends (and discussing, say, income inequality and other social injustices)," it may have to increase salaries or other benefits to attract the quality professors that it seeks to hire.

The market for law professors is, after all, a market.

Posted by: Jarod Bona | Jan 3, 2012 6:10:12 PM

A protest at the AALS is a brilliant idea, actually: It would force a lot of law professors to talk about it.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 3, 2012 5:54:26 PM

Don't expect scambloggers to do any actual protest. They're either lazy or cowardly, or both.

Posted by: anon | Jan 3, 2012 4:26:56 PM

One correction: it's actually called "The People's Front of Judea" now.

Posted by: BrianProf | Jan 3, 2012 12:41:27 PM

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