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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, November 25, 2013

Salon: The Real Reason Law Schools Are Raking in Cash

Kennedy 4Salon:  The Real Reason Law Schools Are Raking in Cash, by Benjamin Winterhalter:

The profession's in crisis, but the schools don't care. They're steeped in a toxic, hyper-capitalist worldview.

As a straight value proposition, it seems, it is no longer clear that going to law school makes any sense. So, law schools, one might reasonably expect, surely must be feeling the pressure. College students, one could not be blamed for thinking, surely must be considering other careers. But it has not been thus.

Why? How, in other words, can we explain the fact that young people are still going to law school in droves? How are we to make sense of the fact that so many intelligent college graduates are, to all appearances, deciding to commit financial suicide? The accounting just does not add up.

A couple of answers suggest themselves. First, there is the fact that law school is uniquely positioned to exploit the ambitions of students whose majors do not lead obviously to a particular career. ... Next, there is the fact that the sorts of people who want to go to law school tend to be exactly the sorts of people who think they can beat the odds. ...

That question, the one that is so obvious that even thinking about it is deeply painful, is this: Why aren’t law schools ashamed of themselves? Where is their sense of pity, of remorse, of human decency? After all, aren’t the very ideals that law schools purport to teach about – justice, fairness, equality – fundamentally and exactly opposed to this sort of naked capitalist exploitation? ... [L]aw school’s indifference to student suffering results not from an inexplicable love of torturous methods of instruction, nor from the inevitability of natural human selfishness, but from a profound ideological commitment to a particular version of neoliberal capitalism. ...

While it is true that today’s law schools are, by and large, nowhere near as bad anything in “The Paper Chase,” the rigidly hierarchical structure of law classes, where the professor is permitted endless liberties and students are expected to endure equally endless abuse, only serves to reinforce the core message: Things have to be more or less the way they are. Despite its arbitrariness, the market (like law school) picks winners and losers neutrally, and where it fails to, the goal is to reduce the amount of noise by tweaking the rules that govern it. Our socioeconomic system (like law school) is basically meritocratic – or as nearly meritocratic as possible given the constraints of the real world. And the division of economic rewards that system generates are fundamentally just – or as nearly just as possible given the unfortunate realities of life in the marketplace. ...

In short, the answer to the question “Why aren’t law schools ashamed of themselves?” is that most of their professors have been disabused of their beliefs in justice, fairness and equality; they do not see things as their bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed first-year students do. They have accepted, instead, the law-and-econ formulation of these values: markets, efficiency and capitalism. It is a strange and frustrating situation: The only people who might have interesting thoughts about how law can function for the betterment of society are those who do not yet know enough about law to have an informed opinion. ...

Why aren’t the thousands of unemployed, over-indebted and disaffected young lawyers doing anything about the situation? Why, that is, have they not gone back to their law schools to seek relief, to demand recompense, or at the very least throw rocks? There have been some attempts to sue law schools for publishing misleading employment figures, and some attempts by the Bar to rein in overeager admissions offices, but these efforts were mostly ineffectual (in the case of the lawsuits, largely because they were ill-conceived). By and large, the response among young attorneys has been one of resignation and glum acceptance of their sorry fates.

[Duncan] Kennedy’s answer to my question [in Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A Polemic Against the System (NYU Press 2007)] is simple and compelling. For most students, the ideological training “takes” – like a plant in new soil. So when they find themselves enduring tough economic times, they assume that, other than grab hold of their bootstraps, there is nothing they can do. As they learned so many times in law school, the market wants what it wants, and it seems – at least at the present moment – not to want them. Since the market, the organ of social judgment, the grumbling gut of a hungry nation, has spoken, there is nothing for them to do but listen. To try, in other words, to make the best of it, all while sensing – if the plant has truly put down roots – the unavoidable conclusion of the law-and-econ doctrines: they deserve their fates.

I think, though, that there is another, simpler reason that law grads aren’t striking back. Lashing out at law school means admitting certain truths about their own lives that are too hard to face: That many of the people they trusted to provide them with meaningful, honest instruction about the law failed them. That the purpose of the harsh methods of instruction was not teach them the rigors of being a lawyer, but to rank and sort them ever more finely. That the ranking process then fulfilled the prophecies of the free-market ideology they absorbed, as the best-performing among them were rewarded, even in tough economic times, with clerkships, prestigious summer internships and – eventually – high-paying positions at big firms. That their own reasons for going to law school were less than completely altruistic – that they did, in fact, want to make something of themselves. That they still, despite their hand-wringing about the unfairness of it all, live in circumstances of enormous wealth and privilege. To strike back, that is, is to admit all the contradictions and injustices of the very system that produced you. It means, in other words, turning against yourself. What is there to do, then, but stare blankly out the window of the downtown office over the cityscape, as the sun splatters a gorgeous blood red against the evening clouds, and wonder what to do about the injustice?

(Hat Tip: Francine Lipman.)


Legal Education | Permalink


Right on! Law schools are uniquely positioned to train students ignorant of STEM and economics, like 8 of SCOTUS.

Posted by: Jimbino | Nov 25, 2013 6:21:54 PM