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Thursday, August 09, 2012

"Time for Action" and some backlash

At the law school scam site, Deborah Jones Merritt has a post proposing that "students form official organizations at their law schools with the mission of 'promoting financial responsibility in legal education.'" The student groups, she suggests, could request more information from law schools about financials, network with alumni, advocate to bar officials, and so on. 

This seems like a perfectly sensible idea to me. For instance, I have urged my own school to do better on transparency issues, and I hope and trust that it will, but I'm only one voice (although for all I know other colleagues here have also urged the same thing), and such requests might be more easily sustained and repeated through a student group. 

I will note three points, however. The first is that some of the things Merritt suggests these groups should do are nicely geared toward individual schools and local legal employment markets, while others are really about national advocacy and lobbying. In terms of structure, she (or, more to the point, the students involved) will want to think about coordinating on a larger level and not just doing it piecemeal at each school, at least if they're serious about the national advocacy part of the proposal. 

Second, it's worth noting that her post has already occasioned many negative comments and the usual infighting. Hey, it's the Internet. But I assume there are many other students out there who are concerned about financial and other issues involving law schools but who are neither as fatalistic as some of the commenters on that site nor as apocalyptic (along "no, what we need is to remake capitalism" lines) as other commenters there. The constituency of students concerned about these issues is larger than just the commenters on scamblogs.

Third, some commenters complain that this is really a job for professors, not students. That's a perfectly fair point. They should not assume that no professors are doing anything, or that if something's not happening on the Internet it's not happening. But I don't see the formation of student groups along these lines precluding professorial involvement in the same issues; to the contrary, one might help spur the other.  

As I did last year, I will note for those students, lawyers, or blog denizens who favor more dramatic action and who have urged protests or demonstrations that the AALS has its annual convention in early January in New Orleans. I have never been terribly personally interested in public protests, marches, and so on, and I doubt that will change. But many professors are, and this would be the best possible time and place for such a demonstration. I'm neither encouraging nor discouraging it. But the AALS is still nearly five months away, and if there is any actual commitment to this kind of action, there's really no sufficiently good reason why it can't take place.    

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 9, 2012 at 09:51 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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One issue with getting the alumni involved - at least with respect to recent alumni - is that we are bewildered that anyone enrolled in law school after 2008.

Posted by: Class of 2007 | Aug 10, 2012 11:57:03 AM

Paul, thanks for posting the idea here. I think there is a real opportunity for students to get involved, both locally and as part of a national league. I agree with you that some issues require local data, while others are matters of national policy: I would definitely encourage coordination among the student groups.

I don't think students would have to carry the full load of this discussion--or even maintain the lead. There are an increasing number of professors concerned about these issues. And, as the last commenter notes, other professors need to become concerned very fast. When the new classes appear for orientation--starting at the end of next week--I think it will quickly be apparent that enrollment is down significantly at many schools. And faculty need to understand that the job market is not going to return to 2007. Indeed, it is going to continue to change beyond 2012, mostly in ways that will disadvantage new law graduates.

Getting people involved now, to collect data, formulate ideas, and discuss those ideas with others, is pretty important.

Posted by: Deborah J Merritt | Aug 9, 2012 8:00:50 PM

Do professors generally have a sense about the ramifications of the cost of tuition, availability of federal loans, etc? I mean, professors will most likely bear the brunt of any significant reduction in tuition or student enrollment, since much of the costs of law school go to support the salary of professors. So if something does happen, or if the "bubble bursts" and tuition/enrollment dramatically decrease, then legal professors face the prospect of large pay cuts or reduction in faculty size or both.

Posted by: anan | Aug 9, 2012 2:54:28 PM

Thanks for the comments. If I may give two responses by way of clarification:

1) Scott, yes it is certainly possible. I tried to acknowledge that in my post, not to take sides on the question. I would say, though, that the "larger problem" comments I have in mind are not those saying that it's about the legal profession as a whole, not just law school, but that it's about, in brief, the injustice of our entire society and economic system.

2) Derek and Michael, to be clear, I was just stating a matter of personal taste. I don't think protests are silly or look silly--even at the beginning. They just don't tend to resonate with me. Perhaps that's my loss.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 9, 2012 2:38:51 PM

Me: Students could ask alumni to specify that their donations go towards scholarship programs, or whatever else they're interested in.

As for students earnestly wanting new construction, I have to doubt that's at all common. If you're at the school during construction fundraising, you'll be gone before the new facility is complete. Students might get excited about their new buildings, or gripe when they're outdated, but if you asked students if they'd rather have the administration focus on raising funds for a new building or to cut tuition by 20%, I have to think most students would prefer the latter.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 9, 2012 11:48:39 AM

Protesters always look silly -- in the beginning.

Posted by: Michael Duff | Aug 9, 2012 11:34:47 AM

A mass mailing to alumni would likely be massively counterproductive, unless its drafters could figure out a magic formula for getting alumni to secure changes without diminishing support one bit -- including for buildings and other amenities, which students sometimes seem to want quite earnestly. Good luck in finding individual signatories, or getting something coherent, timely, and effective out of a student (or any other) organization.

Posted by: Me | Aug 9, 2012 11:26:04 AM

"less fixation on"

Posted by: CHS | Aug 9, 2012 10:47:51 AM

I agree with Paul's take on public protests. In general, they just tend to make the protesters look silly, which in turn makes it easier to dismiss their cause. And, it's not like that many law students can afford a four day trip to New Orleans in the first place.

As for student groups though, I think that's a great idea. You can lobby your administration for greater transparency, or to reevaluate its pedagogical priorities; write op-eds for the school paper and for the local papers; use your group's access to the school to hold a symposium on legal education issues; meet with undergraduate advisers at nearby schools to make sure they understand what's going on in law school. This isn't a lot of pressure on the administration, but as you noted, a student organization is good for sustaining the effort. Individuals graduate, (hopefully) get jobs, and end up moving on with their lives. A persistent student group can keep up the cause indefinitely; it's like filing a class action to avoid a problem of mootness.

Adding on to what they can do, and this will greatly upset some school administrations, but as a student you probably have access to a large alumni database. A mass mailing to alumni could be very powerful. Explain how tuition has gone up, if the class size has increased, how many grads are finding work as attorneys; a lot of alumni are probably not aware of the situation. If I was a donor, I might be very interested to learn that the school raised hundreds of millions for a building project, but is stingy with scholarships and only offers its tax clinic to a dozen students each year.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 9, 2012 10:47:11 AM

If they were truly focused on the big picture, there would be less of fixation on cracking on law professors, who do not loom very large in the transformations overtaking the national and global economy.

Posted by: CHS | Aug 9, 2012 10:39:19 AM

Is it possible that those commenters who cry for action beyond the law school gates might take a broader view of the problems, and recognize that they go well beyond the somewhat insular issue of "promoting financial responsibility in legal education."

While law students, they may see the problem as isolated within legal education. After they graduate, they may see how it's connected with the issues that afflict the broader profession, which some lawprofs either don't, or prefer not to, recognize. Perhaps the problem isn't that commenters reject small action per se, but that small actions that appear reasonable to lawprofs would appear less reasonable (or worthy of the time and effort) if the lawprofs realized how they were part of a larger problem.

Posted by: shg | Aug 9, 2012 10:16:01 AM

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