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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Leiter: Law Schools, Economic Reality, and the Psychology of Cyber-Hysteria

Huffington Post op-eds, by Brian Leiter (Chicago):

[T]he status quo in American legal education hummed along quite well for several decades -- most graduates of accredited law schools passed the bar, most found paid work as lawyers, and most fared far better, financially, than those who did not get law degrees. But two events in the last eight years unsettled the status quo, one familiar, one less so.

The familiar event is the collapse of the global capitalist system in 2008, which soon spread to the legal sector, which entered its own severe recession. Less familiar is that in 2005, Congress overhauled the bankruptcy laws to make them much harsher for debtors and much friendlier to creditors; among the changes, no student loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy any longer, except in extraordinary circumstances. The combination proved toxic for many American law schools. Suddenly, substantial minorities of law school graduates were unemployed, thanks to the recession, and many were saddled with significant debt without any recourse of relief in bankruptcy. ...

The wave of unfavorable publicity had predictable consequences. Applications to and enrollment in law schools entered a steep decline (they are down a third since roughly 2010). Law schools began reducing tuition and cutting faculty. The American Bar Association convened a committee to make recommendations about the "future of legal education." Critics suggested that law school could be two years, instead of three; some suggested making it an undergraduate degree, as in Europe.

None of this was surprising: law school had become very expensive; the legal job market was in recession and that fact was now front-page news; and some graduates now faced mountains of debt without any hope of digging out. The steep decline in applications was a sensible "consumer" response to a downturn in the legal sector. (Ironically, it may have become too steep: we are on track to have more jobs than graduates seeking work by 2016, according to The National Jurist.) What was surprising was a new "meme" that took hold in cyberspace: that this economic catastrophe was actually the fault of law schools and law professors! I return to that topic in Part II.

There is, undoubtedly, considerable suffering among recent law school graduates: unemployment, jobs lost, crushing debts. Some unhappy law graduates have taken to the Internet in search of an explanation for the economic catastrophe they find themselves in. They quickly settled on an "explanation," a "guilty culprit": law schools, by presenting misleadingly optimistic employment data, had induced innocents to enroll who never would have gone to law school. "Law school is a scam," they declared. ... The cyber-hysteria about law schools is not only tediously repetitive, it is immune to facts or evidence. ...

A large body of research -- usefully summarized here -- shows that when like-minded individuals congregate and talk only with each other, their positions become more extreme, and even contrary evidence is then interpreted as confirming the correctness of the most extreme opinions. ... So, too, with the on-line critics of law schools: facts that do not comport with their ideology ("law school is a scam") are deemed not to be facts, and critics of the hysteria are subjected to relentless abuse and defamation. ...

If, as The National Jurist predicts, we are only a couple of years away from an equilibrium in the market between jobs and new law school graduates, then the irrational cyber-hysteria about law schools will soon be a thing of the past. The suffering that has brought it on, however, remains real, and soon Congress will need to take up debt relief for a generation of students caught in the vise of an economic catastrophe.

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2014/01/leiter-law-schools-.html

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Comments

As in-state tuition at my alma mater rose almost 50%, the median starting salary for its graduates who reported them dropped by about 50% amidst a revelation that just over half of its graduates were actually finding work as attorneys within nine months of graduating.

Perhaps if you define "cyber-hysteria" as "the disbelief experienced by comparing mediocre salaries and rates of employment in one's chosen field to the cost of the education required to enter it," I could agree with Prof. Leiter's explanation of cratering interest in legal education.

Posted by: Morse Code for J | Jan 3, 2014 8:43:09 AM

"when like-minded individuals congregate and talk only with each other, their positions become more extreme, and even contrary evidence is then interpreted as confirming the correctness of the most extreme opinions. ... So, too, with the on-line critics of law schools: facts that do not comport with their ideology ("law school is a scam") are deemed not to be facts, and critics of the hysteria are subjected to relentless abuse and defamation. ..." [Leiter]

If only law faculty,including Brian Leiter, subjected their own defenses of legal education and "the sky is not falling" to the same critical treatment then many of the current challenges would have been avoided through intelligent strategic planning in the 1990s and early 2000s when the trends were entirely obvious. Such limited critiques such as the one contained in the above statement from Leiter's comments reflect the fact that we only apply this clear and lucid form of analysis to the statements of others when we disapprove and never to our own analyses.

Posted by: David | Jan 6, 2014 2:57:25 PM