First, he asserts that complaints that what law school teaches is largely irrelevant to practice are very similar to complaints about business schools, divinity schools, schools of government and education, etc. He notes that the only medical schools escape these complaints, and suggests that modeling all other professional schools on the medical school model is both impractical and undesirable.
One thing this blog apparently hasn't emphasized enough is that I'm not claiming that the dysfunctions of law schools are somehow unique in the otherwise well-functioning world of higher education. Higher education in America right now -- and not just at professional schools -- is a mess. More than anything else it is, in the words of one of my favorite academics, the mechanism by which "the entitled become the credentialed." If, as several people have suggested to me, the MBA is becoming as big a ripoff, comparatively speaking, as the JD (I should note I know nothing about business schools), then that fact, if it is a fact, has relevance to how long law schools can continue along their present path as an economic matter, but has no relevance at all to the need to reform that path.
Zaring then points to the case of graduate creative writing programs:
There’s a lot of new law schools out there. But you know what graduate programs have been expanding even faster? Creative writing programs. Seriously (184 today, up from 15 in 1975). Those programs prepare you for nothing other than low paid teaching jobs, and they’re doing fine. If law school is a scam, what are the avidly consumed creative writing programs providing? Campos and other law school critics might try to get their heads around the MFA explosion before indicting the law school one in isolation. It could be that students get something out of graduate school other than guaranteed jobs - indeed, you might even say there is a market for "useless" post-graduate education in the United States.This is an interesting comparison, although in some ways an obviously inapt one. No one goes into an MFA program intending to make lots of money. Indeed it's notable that such programs never focus on producing successful genre writers -- i.e., the next Stephen King or John Grisham -- but are rather dedicated almost exclusively to literary fiction. Nor, as far as I know, do MFA programs engage in industry-wide placement stat deception. (Unlike business schools I know something about these programs because my best friend and his wife are graduates of one). The biggest distinction between law schools and MFA programs goes to the crucial issue of what economists call psychic income. Lots of people grow up hoping to write the Great American Novel. Nobody grows up hoping to one day be Henry Kravis's water carrier on a big M&A deal. People go to law school, with occasional exceptions, in order to acquire a respectable and well-paid career. MFA programs cater to peoples' dreams. Law school is where dreams go to die (Yes I'm generalizing).
And even if we assume that many or most MFA programs are bad deals for those who invest in them, this again hardly constitutes a defense of either MFA programs or law schools. Zaring's observes that "you might even say there is a market for 'useless' post-graduate education in the United States," and indeed you might -- but we should question whether the word "market" in these sorts of statements is doing the amount of redemptive work many market-based normative social theories seem to believe it's doing.
Zaring can't resist building a bit of a straw man when he argues that while it's clear law schools aren't perfectly efficient at pricing their services, "surely they're not totally inefficient?" Well of course they're not. The whole question is how efficient or inefficient are they right now. Zaring points out that a JD from Yale is probably still a good deal, and he implies that bottom tier schools could be a good deal if they stripped themselves down to a "no frills" model that would cost "only" 20K a year in tuition (it's a sign of how out of control costs have become that this "no frills" model is hardly less expensive than the Harvard Law School was in real dollars 25 years ago, and far more expensive than the average law school of that time, including the average private school. 25 years ago average private law school tuition was under 15K in 2011 dollars, while public resident tuition was about 3.5K). But there's an enormous gap between Yale and the "bottom tier." I get emails every day from people who graduated with good grades from top 25 schools and don't have legal jobs. Yes the plural of anecdote is not data. Well the data -- even in the distorted and heavily massaged form in which law schools release it -- is terrible.
Finally Zaring asks if law schools are such academically dubious enterprises, why do all research universities want them? (Except for Princeton interestingly. What's the matter with Princeton?) This seems to me to be a bit of a naive question for a business school professor to ask. His answer -- that law schools make universities look good because "law professors are pretty smart" and generate so much "academic energy" that they're resented by other faculty members -- strikes me as highly implausible (again, a business school professor might consider that professors with actual PhDs in the humanities and social sciences might resent resent law school professors for reasons having little to do with a sense of intellectual inferiority).
Ultimately Zaring is right to highlight that all sorts of critical questions can be asked of other parts of the university besides law schools. And he's also right that the continuing strong demand for JD degrees (a new law school opened in Nashville this week and another is opening in Fort Wayne next fall) says something compelling about the market for this particular service. I suspect that what it says, however, is something more disturbing than Zaring's glass half-full perspective suggests.