Right now she's struggling with how much if any of this she should share with her students, either inside the classroom (when discussing, say, the doctrine of caveat emptor, certain examples from the world of contemporary legal education might be said to leap to mind) or out of it. I was impressed with her sense of ethical obligation -- she told me she would much rather not get tenure than mislead her students -- and by the extent to which she had yet to be co-opted by the usual forces that crush dissent in the law school world.
I didn't have much in the way of useful advice, other than to exhort her to continue to be a teacher attempting to convey the truth as she sees it, rather than allowing herself to be transformed into a salesperson pushing product for the organization that employs her. The conversation raised questions in my mind about what exactly we -- that is, those legal faculty who don't have their heads in the sand -- ought to be telling our students right now. One thing that seems clear is that law faculty have an obligation to educate themselves, to the extent they can, about their graduates' actual employment status (Faculty will have much better access to this information than anyone outside law schools, although I don't doubt many a law school's administration will resist sharing this data even with its own faculty).
When, for example, a student asks you at the end of his first year about whether he ought to continue with his legal education, it's difficult to give grounded advice if you don't know the answer to such basic questions as how many of the school's graduates are getting real legal jobs, and what they're being paid. In my experience at present almost no law faculty can answer this question with anything more than the roughest of guesses -- I certainly couldn't have even a year ago. (In addition one piece of information that it would be good for every law professor to have is, how many recent alumni are eligible for IBR? The ABA could eliminate much of the employment disclosure scandal by simply requiring law schools to report this figure, which can be determined for any individual graduate in about 30 seconds).
A more difficult question is how to deal with what might be called psychic costs and benefits of being a lawyer. It is a truth universally acknowledged that most law professors don't know much about the practice of law. For understandable reasons, people tend to focus on how this is a problem for reform efforts aimed at making law school a more practical vocational experience. But this fact also raises another problem, captured well by this commentator:
It is really difficult to talk someone out of going to law school. Everything about law school sounds great in theory. It seems prestigious. Many prospective students make up fantasies in their minds about what a JD will do for them. The law schools' websites and promotional materials are very effective at confirming whatever fantasy a prospective student has about the utility of a JD.
Law schools existences depend upon enrolling as many people as possible who have no real idea of what practicing law is like. As long as 0Ls have stars in their eyes about "doing international law" (whatever the hell that is) or "using their JD to passionately advocate on behalf of X group of people," they will continue to enroll. Every law school is more than happy to do its part to keep these fantasies alive until the 0L has signed on the dotted line and taken their seat in their 1L class.
I think the best way to discourage potential law school scam victims is to do as much as possible to enlighten them as to what a JD can actually be used for and what practicing law is really like. I suppose there is a tendency to soften blows, and try to gently talk people out of things. With law school, I think the harsh, unpleasant approach is the way to go. Explain what its like to deal with idiotic political hack judges and deranged clients who think that a $2,000 retainer creates a period of indentured servitude. Explain doc review and the biglaw pyramid. Explain that there are very few warm, romantic situations in which an attorney is able to come to the rescue of a deserving client.
Maybe the easiest way to give a real world example of what its like to practice law would be to provide all prospective students with the Additional Disclosures booklet that comes with most credit card offers in the mail. Have them read the entire booklet carefully and completely. Then let them know that practicing law will involve reading that booklet 5-7 days a week for 8-15 hours a day.This raises what in the end is a much more difficult issue regarding the disclosure obligations of law faculty than that created by the phony employment numbers schools continue to publish (the latter problem can be addressed adequately by adopting something like the recommendations put forth by the Law School Transparency project). What, after all, are we supposed to say to students about the copious evidence that very large numbers of lawyers really hate their jobs, because the practice of law often involves an insidious combination of boredom and stress? I mean besides, "I can't tell you much about that because I'm not really a lawyer, thank G-d."
For some reason this all brings to mind the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's comment that being a philosophy professor was an "absurd job" and "a kind of living death." (According to his friend Norman Malcolm Wittgenstein also thought that universities "stifled original philosophical thought, and made it difficult to be a decent human being." As a consequence he urged his students to take up useful work instead, such as farming or medicine, and was always delighted when they didn't pursue academic careers in philosophy).
We can't all be Wittgenstein, who in addition to being a genius took practical ethics seriously enough that he gave away all of his immense fortune after reading Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief. But we can try to be honest with ourselves and others. That, under the current circumstances, is a daunting enough challenge.