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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Possible Reasons for Ambivalence to a Large Increase in AALS Dues for "Public Outreach"

On Monday Professor Michael Simkovic proposed a substantial redistribution of AALS resources to "public outreach efforts" aimed at better "explaining [legal education's] value to the press and the public," including such things as feeding individual journalists with "personally tailored content that each journalist is particularly likely to find relevant and interesting based on [his or her] past coverage and the stories they are currently researching." He also proposed that such "efforts could be funded by a 50% to 100% increase in annual [AALS] dues (roughly $5,000 to $10,000 for the smallest law schools and $15,000 to $30,000 for the largest) for the next 3 years."

Someone else will have to speak to how likely the latter proposal is to actually occur. I would have thought "not very," but I could be wrong and I don't have any special information about this. I wish the post had provided some evaluation of the proposal's likelihood of moving forward, since it might be inefficient for me to allocate my time to pondering the issue if it has little chance of happening. But perhaps no basis for an estimate is available.

My assumption based on general experience is that, at least in terms of the legal blogosphere, views of such a proposal will be heavily and perhaps excessively influenced by one's priors concerning law schools and the costs, benefits, and value of legal education. But I suspect that many law professors might be ambivalent about or opposed to such a proposal, even if they share (or are agnostic about) Simkovic's conclusions about those issues. 

Here are a few reasons why, even if they agree generally with Simkovic's other arguments about legal education, they might nevertheless hesitate to support his latest proposal or even oppose it. I have made an effort throughout to impose an important constraint on this post: I have avoided any reasons that require one to take issue with Simkovic's prior conclusions about the benefits of legal education and the state of the legal/legal education economy. I will relax that constraint a little at the end of the post, and we will see that once we do so, professors may have many other reasons to disagree with the proposal to have the AALS launch an expanded "public outreach program." That is true even if they agree with the basics of his conclusions elsewhere but take issue with particular aspects of his argument and its implications. At least initially, however, I want to remove the possibility (given what I see in the legal blogosphere, the certainty) of motivated reasoning based on readers' thoughts about whether legal education is worth it for prospective law students. The list follows after the jump.      

  • Simkovic argues that the AALS is a suitable body to carry out the "public outreach" effort, and to receive the extra funds to support it, because the AALS is "the closest thing in the law school world" to a "trade association." Some law professors might reach a different conclusion. They might believe that the analogy is mistake: The AALS is or should be a learned society, not a trade association. They might further believe that the proper role of a learned society is inconsistent with the more aggressive lobbying and image improvement (or laundering) efforts that a trade association might undertake.
  • Relaxing the last point a little, some professors might believe that even a learned society can disseminate information about its branch of the academy, or about the related profession it serves, as well as serving as a more intellectual and disciplinary forum. Moreover, they might believe that a public outreach effort that consists of correcting errors in stories and suggesting true and meaningful new stories is consistent with the AALS's role. But they might believe that a much-expanded PR staff would not act in anything like that modest and restrained fashion. They might be concerned that eventually and inevitably--and perhaps even right off the bat--the PR staff would view its job as offering uniformly sunny stories, reflexively criticizing or soft-soaping any negative stories about legal education, attempting to convince reporters that minor errors in negative stories are more egregious than they are while minimizing or waving away errors in positive stories, and so on--doing, in short, what PR professionals often do. They might even fear that in some cases the PR staff would end up propagating messages that are false or misleading--in a general sense, and against a background of academic allegiance to truth-seeking values, if not as a technical legal matter. They might believe that any such tendencies, or indeed the mere risk of such conduct occurring, is inconsistent with the values that a learned society should exemplify. In short, they might worry that even if an outreach project started modestly and carefully, it could end up as an aggressive sales job or an act of whitewashing, in a way that would depart from or corrupt the AALS's proper role as a learned society.
  • Some professors might simply dislike the AALS. That's not me, I should add; I am a member of some administrative committees, have served as an officer of various sections, and despite some reservations I generally think well of the annual meeting (although I wish it were held elsewhere). But clearly my view is not shared universally within the legal academy. One regularly hears very negative views of the AALS expressed by law professors--and that's just the ones who actually attend the annual meeting. One assumes that many such professors would hardly welcome assigning an enhanced role to the AALS or significantly increasing dues to that group, even temporarily. Some of them may think, specifically, that the AALS is not sufficiently competent, or competent in this area, to justify the significant increase in fees. (I am describing the potential, and indeed likely, view of others, not my views.) 
  • Some professors might simply distrust the AALS. Distrust is different from dislike or hostility. Even a professed admirer of the AALS, its mission, and its history and accomplishments might nonetheless be distrustful of a proposal to increase annual dues by 50 to 100 percent. Simkovic proposes that this be a short-term increase, but they might fear that the increase would be extended or slide into a permanent one. Simkovic notes in his post the likelihood of collective action problems for law schools. Similarly, some law professors might fear agency problems with his proposal. They might fear that some of the funds would end up going to other uses, being used to favor particular schools or messages, being used to give undue positive publicity to the AALS itself and thus enhance its own position, and so on. Leaving aside those kinds of concerns, they might, as I noted above, distrust that the AALS would run its public outreach program in a modest way, or fear that it would end up "messaging" in a false or misleading positive direction in a way that,in their view, would or should be inconsistent with the integrity of a learned society. In addition, while the AALS staff is fairly stable, its top leadership changes regularly, and they might be unwilling to support increased dues for such a program given that fact and their fear that a future AALS head might be less trustworthy than the current leadership.   
  • Some professors might have problems with efforts undertaken to provide positive outreach on behalf of the AALS as a whole. They might be concerned or convinced that some law schools should not exist or do not properly serve the interests of their students, and thus prefer not to double the dues paid to the AALS so that such schools can receive 1/200th of the benefit of positive publicity that they do not deserve. Those professors may believe, at least as a moral matter, that there are limits to the phrase "we're all in this together."

As I noted at the start, these possible reasons do not require anyone to disagree with Simkovic's prior conclusions about legal education, or indeed with most of what he says in his post on Tuesday. We can thus, I hope, see that people might well question or oppose his proposal without being motivated, knowingly or not, by hostility to his conclusions on that subject. But there is a middle case too. It is possible that some of his readers share his general conclusions about the value of legal education but disagree or quibble with specific details of those conclusions, or of the conclusions he reaches over the course of Monday's post itself. That is hardly an outrageous or law-school-hostile position to be in. For those professors, there would be further possible concerns:

  • Without questioning his general conclusions or even the general proposal, they might be skeptical about some of his conclusions, and thus about whether the proposed outreach program would be worth the significant increase in dues. They might, for instance, wonder whether it is clearly or demonstrably true that "newspapers will on average have cost each prospective law students tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The total economic harm across all prospective law students could easily be in the low billions of dollars." Or they might doubt the suggestion (as I read it) in Simkovic's posts that critics of legal education were effective or successful in driving down law school enrollments. (Those groups may have claimed otherwise, but as he notes, they are potentially self-interested too, and claims on their own behalf may be disbelieved or taken with a grain of salt.) By the same token, they might doubt the likelihood that an AALS public relations program would be all that effective. Or they might conclude that those deans and others who spoke out on behalf of legal education--even if some of them were questionable standard-bearers and not all the criticism and public notoriety some of them faced was mere "retaliation" or lightning-roditude--did not get much of a positive result for their efforts. Any or all of this might lead them to conclude that an expanded AALS effort is not demonstrably necessary, that it is likely to be ineffective, or if effective is not sufficiently likely to be effective enough to justify a substantial increase in AALS dues.
  • Professors might share Simkovic's general conclusions but believe that the costs and benefits of a legal education are not distributed in an equal fashion across the board. They might believe as a normative matter that their primary responsibility is to ensure that those prospective students who might suffer harms as a result of choosing to attend law school are discouraged from doing so, and that encouraging attendance by those students who might benefit over the long term from law school to attend is only a secondary duty. Similarly, even if they believe that some or many students might benefit financially from law school over the long run despite working at jobs other than as practicing lawyers ("JD advantage" jobs, etc.) and that there is nothing wrong with an individual's "choosing" to do such work rather than practicing law, they might believe that the legal academy's primary responsibility is to the legal profession. As a result, they might hesitate to support an expanded public outreach program that would spend some or much of its time pointing to the financial benefits accruing to students who do not become practicing lawyers, or to support a PR program that would not make an adequate effort to moderate its message or name those schools or circumstances, if any, in which a student might be worse off as a result of choosing to attend law school.  

More broadly, and in conclusion, is a point that has been at least implicit throughout this post. Regardless of whether one agrees with Simkovic's general conclusions about legal education or not, or agrees with it in large measure but not entirely, or agrees or disagrees with his reasoning in Monday's post about the logic of and need for a public outreach program and major increase in AALS dues, many professors' conclusions--I would think all professors' conclusions--will not turn on the data or logical reasoning from those data alone. (In any event, they might believe that while some of the logical reasoning is solid, other aspects of that reasoning involve too much overconfident speculation from too little data--for instance, speculation about the dollar cost of "bad" newspaper stories.) Much will turn on their normative views. And some--or many--law professors may have normative reasons to be concerned about such a proposal, or to oppose it outright. Whether such a program is a good idea turns in large part on what thinks about the role and responsibility of law professors; the role and responsibility of legal education (to train lawyers? to train anyone who wants a law degree no matter what they do with it? to teach the law for its own sake regardless of employment outcomes?); the role and function of the AALS; how to weigh long-term financial gains against short-term joblessness or positive aggregate outcomes against particular negative outcomes; whether the US needs more lawyers or not and, perhaps more important, whether too great a number of law students may involve admitting too many students who should not be turned loose on clients at all; the morality of public relations generally or of particular kinds of public relations techniques; the morality of "quick-response teams" and the moral risks involved in introducing a David Brock mentality into the heart of our learned society; the possible tension between PR operations and the more straitened academic virtue of truth-seeking and of candor and integrity in addressing disputed public matters; and so on.


Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 26, 2015 at 11:41 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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