Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jim Chen: Legal Education and the Heir of Slytherin

ChenJim Chen (Dean, Louisville), Legal Education and the Heir of Slytherin:

There is no value in prestige or credentials. There is only performance, and those who have the wisdom to prize it.

I still believe what John Steinbeck said in East of Eden: There is one story in the world, and only one. ...  The narrative is one of epic, ceaseless competition between elites and outsiders. ...

All of this prepares me to open one of the darkest chambers of secrets in law and legal education. Law schools and the country's largest law firms have long occupied — and jealously guarded — the most coveted corners in the American legal profession. Indeed, these institutions perpetuate each other's lock on power and prestige. Every city has its collection of "BigLaw" firms — highly leveraged partnerships performing a wide range of legal services on behalf of the corporate and institutional clients that control our society's greatest concentrations of wealth. BigLaw draws its talent from the most highly credentialed students emerging from our law schools. Without elite grades, no student stands a chance of scoring a BigLaw interview, let alone a BigLaw job.

At some schools, BigLaw does dig deeper in the talent pool. Of course, those schools are the prestigious ones with national reputations. Typically they're named for dead white men who conquered and paved North America, or else for big, wealthy states. At schools such as Harvard, Duke, or Vanderbilt, or Virginia, Michigan, or Berkeley, BigLaw historically has been willing to interview a broader spectrum of students. At schools that historically operated under a municipal charter and have dedicated themselves to the higher training and useful education of local youth, BigLaw has been decidedly pickier. ...

[L]aw schools collectively have elevated grades and rankings above all other considerations. Legal educators devised the elitist complex of grades, honors, law review credentials, and federal court clerkships on which BigLaw has built its entire model for evaluating talent. If anything, academia has doubled down on BigLaw's bet. We draw our own faculty ranks from an even more selective pool of candidates. BigLaw and American law schools have anointed their superstars on the basis of schools attended and grades attained when these lawyers and professors were students in their twenty-something years, as though ancient educational credentials represented the lone basis of membership in some sort of professional apostolic succession.

Excessive emphasis on pedigree over performance has pushed the legal profession to a point of reckoning. Hourly billing, at hundreds of dollars per hour and without regard to actual value delivered, is a barbarous relic that contemporary clients, sensitive to their own economic survival, have rightfully begun to reject. Law schools can no longer indulge the conventional assumption that they can focus entirely on training their students to "think like lawyers," without attention to concrete skills or the pragmatic nuances of actual practice. Every instance of mismatch between paper credentials and actual performance on the job signals incompleteness or even outright inaccuracy in the elite model of legal education and BigLaw recruitment. Every BigLaw hire that flames out after two unproductive years should prompt honest recognition of the limits of elite credentials. Honesty about the limits of the existing model of legal education should prompt all law schools to ensure their students a true return on their educational investment, to prepare all students not just to ace an exam or "book" a subject, but to be as fully prepared to serve clients and deliver results as a lawyer can be upon passing the bar exam.

This is not a jeremiad against legal education and elite law firms. All models of legal practice, in firms large and small, in government as in education and in philanthropy, deliver value to clients and to society at large. I believe wholeheartedly in the transformative power of legal education, motivated by a passion for teaching and informed by serious scholarship. For me to believe otherwise would force me to declare my own life an evil, bankrupt waste, and I emphatically believe that I have not lived in vain. ...

I worked my hardest to make good on the promise of my youth. But the task to which I have devoted my forties, that of managing a complex educational institution for the betterment of its students and the clients they will ultimately serve, is one that transcends my grades, my diplomas, my clerkships, and even the articles on my curriculum vitae. Everything I've done in life didn't get graded in law school. Grades were then. Life is now. As a firmly committed Muggle, I am no heir of Slytherin. Fate did bestow upon me a bundle of legal education's most elite experiences. And this is what I have learned since graduation: There is no value in prestige or credentials. There is only performance, and those who have the wisdom to prize it.

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"There is no value in prestige or credentials." is wrong.
In a USA that sues and even prosecutes inequality of hiring outcome based on racial, sexual, and other quotas, irrespective of applicants' qualifications...
In a USA that sues and even prosecutes inequality of promotions from within, irrespective of current employees' qualifications or capabilities...
In a USA where the only allowable reason for inequalities of outcome in hiring or promotion is the presence of certain credentials (and the entities issuing those credentials are known for issuing them with major biases towards said quota preference groups), then it can't be said that there is no value to credentials.
Either for the credential holder, as they can be hired by employers wanting to not be attacked by the Feds with the various Equal Opportunity clubs and brickbats, or for the employers wanting to hire in the USA (until they can move those jobs overseas) but not be attacked by the Federal apparatus.

Posted by: Jhn1 | Nov 10, 2011 11:07:41 AM

then too bad you have no performance

Posted by: nick | Nov 10, 2011 9:38:54 AM

To put it more pithily, as I heard it when I was applying to law school, "A law degree from Harvard will get you your first job, but it won't get you your second."

Posted by: mike | Nov 10, 2011 8:42:34 AM