Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cunningham & Rodriguez on the ABA Legal Education Task Force Working Paper

Good news for law professors now submitting articles seeking offers from high-status journals: the importance of status in American law schools is over-rated and is about to be reduced. At least that is the urging of an ABA Task Force Working Paper released last week addressing contemporary challenges in legal education in the U.S.

Obsession with status is a culprit in the woes of today’s American law schools and faculty, the Working Paper finds. It charges today’s law professors with pitching in to redress prevailing woes by working to reduce the role of status as a measure of personal and institutional success. The group’s only other specific recommendation for law faculty is to become informed about the topics the 34-page Working Paper chronicles so we might pitch in to help as needed by our schools.

Much of the rest of the Working Paper is admirable, however, making the two specific recommendations to law faculty not only patently absurd but strange in context.   After all, the Working Paper urges reform of ABA/AALS and state regulations with a view toward increasing the variety and type of law schools. It calls for serious changes in the way legal education is funded, though it admits that the complex system of education finance in the U.S. is deeply and broadly problematic and well beyond the influence of a single professional task force.

The Task Force urges US News to stop counting expenditure levels as a positive factor in its rankings. It stresses problems arising from a cost-based rather than market-based method of setting tuition. It notes a lack of a business mind set among many in legal education. It questions the prevailing structure of professorial tenure, scholarship, leadership roles and, yes, the faculty culture that makes status an important measure of individual and institutional success.

But amid all that law professors just have two tasks, becoming informed and demoting status. So there must be some hidden meaning to this idea of status as a culprit and the prescription for prawfs to reduce the importance of status as a measure of success. I am not sure what it is. The Working Paper does not explain or illustrate the concept of status or how to reduce its importance. ...

[T]he Working Paper, despite seeming to be serious in so many ways, is really a bit of a joke. ... It is if the authors propose to remove psychology from organizational behavior. A meeting on the Working Paper is scheduled for this Saturday. I wonder if they want many law professors to attend.

One “highlight” (their words) of the report is the following:

Law school education is funded through a complex system of tuition, discounting, and loans. Schools announce standard tuition rates, and then chase students with high LSAT scores by offering substantial discounts without much regard to financial need. Other students receive little if any benefit from discounting and must rely mainly on borrowing to finance their education. The net result is that students whose credentials (and likely job prospects) are the weakest incur large debt to sustain the school budget and enable higher-credentialed students to attend at little cost. These practices drive up both tuition and debt, and they are in need of serious re-­‐engineering.

There is much to this observation, an observation that is unpacked in more detail elsewhere in the report.  Without question, most law schools are deploying tuition revenue to provide merit-based aid to a segment of the student body.  This represents, any way you slice it, some considerable redistribution from one group of students to another group.  We should be upfront about what we do; and, if and insofar as there are justifications for the practice, we should be transparent and self-critical.

In that spirit . . . let me offer a few thoughts about the practice and its critique:


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