Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Comfortably numb

 (Updated below)

Any critique of the set of powerful social institutions that work together to create contemporary American legal education must be as it were political all the way down. (Few things annoy me as much as the conceit trafficked in by "reasonable" centrist types that there are obvious non-ideological solutions to serious social problems, which invariably involve adopting the reasonable centrist's obviously reasonable views.  You can find this conceit in pretty much any Tom Friedman NYT column, and in many a law school classroom, textbook, and law review article that discusses "policy," so-called).

It's true that at present legal education in America is so screwed up that it's possible and indeed necessary to critique it from literally any coherent ideological position.  Libertarians should despise the market distortions produced by its cartel structure and its phony employment stats, cultural conservatives ought to be appalled by the nihilistic tendencies of its standard jurisprudence, i.e., law somehow creates moral obligations although nobody can say why, mild Obama-style liberals should be discomfited by how terribly expensive the whole thing has gotten, and actual leftists, assuming such people even exist any more within the American legal academy in practice rather than in "theory," ought to hate just about everything about the entire enterprise, given that at present it's a practically perfect machine for replicating and reinforcing class privilege in its most invidious forms.

I started looking into this business in a systematic way about a year ago, and over that span I've developed sympathy for all these critiques: or perhaps more accurately potential critiques, since in many ways the most striking feature of the legal academy at present is the absence of genuine critical perspectives of any kind.  My sense -- and I sincerely hope I'm mistaken -- is that the whole thing has gotten so comfortably numb that it's almost impossible to get people to pay any attention to the extent to which in legal academia is in a state that's summarized with a certain piquant cogency by this gentleman's observation.


Anyway, I find this lack of engagement most aggravating in regard to those of my colleagues who consider themselves in any way liberal or even left.  (I have a lot more respect for the Ayn Rand types: at least they don't pretend to care).  If the continuing indifference of law school administrations and faculties to the increasingly scandalous disjunction between the cost and value of legal education demonstrates anything, I suppose, its that class interest trumps putative ideological commitment just about every time.  This isn't exactly something that qualifies as an original or interesting observation, but for some reason I still find the fact itself annoying as heck.

I suppose I'd like some sort of acknowledgement on the part of these sorts of people -- people who "care" about social injustice -- that every time we vote to buy ourselves more goodies we're voting to raise tuition on that ever-growing proportion of our students who can't really afford to pay what we're charging them for what we're selling them.  Maybe, just maybe, we should stop doing that -- or at least we should, under present circumstances, figure out a way to buy ourselves fun new toys (usually described as "improving the quality of what is already the best legal education available anywhere in the world") without charging more than we already charge for our unspeakably valuable services.

Really, why shouldn't every law school in the country at a minimum freeze tuition right now? (Actually law school tuition should be cut drastically but I'm trying to be realistic here). Can we at least discuss that option before hiring six more people and opening two new centers, and building a new this and that chock full of environmentally conscious "green" design features?  And before you get to that, yes I realize law school faculties, and even law school deans, don't set tuition themselves in some direct non-problematic fashion. There are a bunch of central administrators to deal with as well. And a serious collective action problem. And the extent to which the cost of education is a Veblen good. And lots of other problems too. Guess what -- politics is hard!  And in the end this is all about politics, not about the centrist's complacent vision of "reasonable people pursuing reasonable purposes reasonably."

Update: Brian Tamanaha asks why anybody should believe the salary numbers law schools report.


  1. People who matter


    When the powers that be take everything else you have, and all you have left is your body and your free will, you appreciate the power of these two simple tools.

  2. Yeah, they don't matter. Just the same group of semi-professional protesters, college activists, and ex-hippies that has consistently failed to pique the interest of the mob.

  3. Their protests are scaring the sh*t out of the establishment, and they're on the front page of the news every day.

  4. Truth and justice or power and privilege

    Pick a side a go with it.

    If you are not a political representative and claim to be a centrist, the you are coward without a cause.

  5. Thanks lawprof for posting this. It's something I've always noticed about my law school professors, especially those who come from public interest backgrounds. Those same professors tend to rationalize their behavior by assuming all students are from privileged backgrounds and can afford to have someone else foot the bill.

    It's that old saying, "the academy loves progress but hates change."

  6. 6:54, in my experience liberals are generally scoundrels who contrive such excuses to steal.

  7. "I suppose I'd like some sort of acknowledgement on the part of these sorts of people -- people who "care" about social injustice -- that every time we vote to buy ourselves more goodies we're voting to raise tuition.."

    I think it was this type of hypocrisy that disgusted me the most about law school, and it wasn't limited to faculty. Law students were the same. It was if you were limited to discuss reform in very specific ways (for libs this was limited to doing public interest work and for conservatives this meant deregulation in all forms) but if you discussed how corrupt and dysfunctional and predatory the entire system was you were looked at as if you were a half-naked hippy camping out in Golden Gate Park letting your freak-flag fly. And I was and am pretty mainstream politically.

    It was as if everyone decided to drink the kool-aid and is the things I found the most disconcerting about the entire experience. Its actually what I see a lot here too....revolution but only in a manner that is "socially" acceptable.

  8. 7:15: That pretty much nails it.

  9. @7:14: In my experience, people who unironically use the word "scoundrel" to describe someone else are douchebags.

  10. 7:14, The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.- JK Galbraith

  11. Great comment 7:15. That pretty much sums up the modern democratic party, and, sadly, is why many genuine conservatives raise absolutely legitimate points about the ridiculousness of most "liberals."

    As for law school administrations, implying they are gutless centrists is way too kind. I prefer extremely intelligent sociopaths.

  12. Very interesting post on Balkinization today:


  13. 7:15 here. This is why if find the sanctimonious pronouncements of a a few regulars here about the use of language and "being taken seriously" such a sideshow and insulting. I was always under the impression that you, LawProf, supported those sentiments. (not that its the most important issue it just seemed so reminiscent of my experience at school)

  14. I think everyone can agree that the numbers cannot be trusted. As I've mentioned before, a rule banning a school from putting out salary information would help--or even one that banned it if less than X% of the class reported.

    But this has been going on for years and years, so I ask this: What do the schools have to gain by changing what they're doing, and what do they have to lose if they don't?

    Since they are not being slapped by the courts for fraud (the current lawsuits aren't going to go anywhere--I think we all know that), and since they have 10 asses to sit in every seat in the law school, why should they care?

    A law school that charges $30k in tuition and has 250 students in a class is bringing in $7.5M each and every year. Multiply that by however many law schools there are now and combine it with the political power of all of the universities they are a part of (who love that $7.5M) and you've got your answer as to why nothing is going to change.

    Sad but most likely true.

  15. Self-awareness from inside of a powerful, sclerotic institution is rare. You and your blog are rare. Powerful, sclerotic institutions tend to collapse suddenly and with a lot of disorder and chaos, and they tend to collapse due to pressure from outside, not pressure from within.

    So expecting your fellow lawprofs to gain objective self-knowledge about their true relationship with their customers is expecting too much.

    Aside from that, why do you give a pass to the hardcore libertarians? They should be filled with rage at the entire, rent-seeking institution.

  16. the current lawsuits aren't going to go anywhere--I think we all know that

    I don't think that's a foregone conclusion by any means.

  17. Realistically, what do you expect would be the most drastic thing to come from the suits? The court will never award any kind of monetary damages because the floodgates would be opened for every law school on the books.

    So then what? An injunction against putting out stats? Some other remedy where they have to put out accurate stats verified by some higher authority from now on?

    Even if that would happen (I really doubt it, but I guess it's remotely possible) it won't solve the bigger problem about law school tuition, debt, more lawyers getting pumped out than jobs, etc. I truly don't see what benefit, other than a moral victory, comes from the job/salary stat angle.

    I'm not saying there isn't one, I'm just saying I don't see it and am probably too cynical to believe there really is one until I see it.

    I'm all for "fixing the system," whatever that means...I think it comes down to allowing the lenders to lose out on bad loans though.

  18. I'm struck by some of the parallels with medical education over the past century. Until the Flexner Report of 1910, medical education in America was characterized by a large number of proprietary schools that were run as profitable enterprises by their physician-owners. Not surprisingly, medical practice was characterized by an oversupply of poorly trained physicians. Probably over half of America's physicians did not support themselves through the practice of medicine.

    After the Flexner Report, a large number of marginal medical schools closed, and those which stayed open trained better physicians. Meanwhile, the physician supply became more matched to demand, and most folks found a job practicing medicine.

    What I don't know is exactly what pressure was brought to bear, and by whom, on the lower tier of medical schools that caused them to close. It wasn't that there were not students willing to pay the tuition.

    Comparing this with law schools, it seems that the only thing that would make them close is a dramatic drop in student applicants. What are the real prospects of that?

  19. Very interesting Dr. Johnson. Thank you for this information.

  20. Realistically, what do you expect would be the most drastic thing to come from the suits?

    I think the suits can start having an impact as soon as it becomes clear that at least one court is taking them seriously. For example, schools' losing 12(b)(6) motions, motions for summary judgment, and/or motions for protective orders should make administrators everywhere start to pay attention and seriously reconsider their risk management.

  21. "Realistically, what do you expect would be the most drastic thing to come from the suits?"

    1. Discovery.

    2. Evidence of the fraud.

    From there, the options are endless.

  22. "New York Law School is a useful example because its dean disclosed in an interview the real numbers behind the veil, allowing us see the size of the gap. NYLS posts dazzling employment numbers in its US News profile: $60,000 (25th percentile), $160,000 (median), $160,000 (75th percentile). Those unbelievably high salaries for graduates from a low ranked school are explained by the 28 percent response rate."

    If you accept these (fraudulent) numbers, you would have to be a fool NOT TO pay $200k to go to NYLS.

  23. It's still a poor decision when you can go to any number of similarly ranked schools for less tuition and lower COL.

  24. At 10:08 - you are underestimating the profit a law school makes. A school that charges 30k with 250 students in a class (maybe we went to the same place!) makes 22.5 million a year, because they collect tuition from 3 classes of students a year. Not disagreeing with your point, just illustrating that they're making way more than that.
    Personally, I kind of hope you are wrong about the law suits. My school is one of the ones in there, and I'm really debating about whether I want to take part.

  25. If your law school is attached to a university, how much of it do they keep?

  26. @Avor/12:22 p.m.:

    I could be naive, but I believe that prospective law students will not pay Harvard prices for Starbucks employment outcomes. Either tuition comes down at the places which have most failed students, or their services improve, or they go out of business being unable to do either in a world where their employment reporting is accurate.

    If you want to say that future transparency does nothing for the people who have already graduated, then you would be correct. However, I don't think it would merely be a "moral victory," and the energy that the ABA has put into mitigating transparency reforms tells me that they and their constituent law schools agree with me.

  27. Why Law School is still worth it


  28. "There has been a lot of negative talk about law school lately, but the facts belie the hype. The legal profession has low unemployment rates, lawyers earn high salaries and loans are manageable."

    by . . . "Aaron N. Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law"

  29. This is why you need U.S. Attorneys involved. If you think law schools are going to police themselves you're nuts. These people are criminals who would probably do a lot more than fraud to line their pockets.

  30. From Taylor's article:

    "Federal loans are vastly superior to private loans, and fortunately, most law students are able to finance their entire cost of attendance with federal loans only. Interest rates are fixed on most federal loans, and they are much lower than rates offered in the private market. Federal student loans also come with payment grace periods, deferral and forbearance options and an array of repayment plans — the most generous of which being the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR)."

    Hey! You don't have to pay the money back. We'll saddle the taxpayers with the cost.

    This guy is advocating for knowing fraud against the taxpayer dollars. If you put a bunch of money on a credit card, knowing that you can't pay it back, with the intention of declaring bankruptcy - that's fraud. Same principle if you borrow money to go to law school, knowing you can't pay it back.

  31. "Through IBR, debtors with low income, relative to federal student loan debt, are allowed to make reduced payments of no more than 15 percent of their disposable income (defined as the difference between Adjusted Gross Income and 150 percent of the poverty guideline). After 25 years, any remaining loan balance is forgiven. If the debtor is working in a public service job, as a prosecutor, for example, balances are forgiven after just 10 years. IBR and other repayment options help ensure that debtors don’t have to choose between basic necessities and paying their federal student loans. Moreover, the loan forgiveness aspects of these plans are essentially back-end scholarships. "

    Can you believe the shame of this guy? holy shit!

  32. "Given the political obsession with the federal deficit, you should probably take advantage of these favorable options while you can. One of the cost-saving “deals” made during the debt-ceiling-debacle ended interest subsidies on graduate and professional school student loans. These subsidies went to financially needy students and were typically worth thousands of dollars. So, along with increased tuition, politics could make law school more expensive in the future."

    WOW!!!!! He admits that his institution is taking advantage of the treasury, and that this won't last, so his solution is to get yours while you can!

  33. "Another benefit of the bad publicity is that law schools will likely provide more detailed employment data. The anxiety over jobs prompted a grassroots movement for more transparency from law schools. The result was a mandate by the American Bar Association that law schools provide employment data that goes beyond traditional employment rates and provides better information about the types of jobs graduates are getting. The ABA will make this information available to the public, allowing applicants to better compare schools and make better informed decisions about where to attend — or whether to attend."


    I'm speechless. Congratulations law schools! This is you!

  34. "Aaron N. Taylor
    Assistant Professor of Law

    Professor Aaron Taylor joins SLU LAW after a career as a law school administrator. Most recently, he served as associate dean for admissions and scholarships at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. He joined Bowen from Harvard University, where he directed admissions for five master’s degree programs in the Graduate School of Education. Prior to that, he practiced ethics law in Washington, D.C."

  35. Holy god that article is terrible. I wonder what that page would look like if they enabled comments....

  36. It's Cooley level self serving "analysis."

    Any St. Louis law grads on here? (To be clear, this is not WUSTL. It's STL a 4TTT that charges as much as Harvard Law).

  37. Dozens of these shills all spouting the same crap, over and over again. The article is so depressing because it is the exact same crap the last 10 guys said.

  38. This is why I keep telling you people to organize a protest. Not that someone like this wouldn't pay security to brutalize protesters, but if you don't take it to the next level nothing will change. You are dealing with a particularly shameless type of person.

  39. IBR is a great option for people with student loan debt as it makes the loan payments extremely reasonable.

    It doesn't mean law schools aren't wrong to do what they do, but it's probably the most you could expect the govt to do to help out grads with a ton of student debt.

  40. He calls taking advantage of the taxpayer via IBR a "back end scholarship."

  41. According to his bio, one of the subjects Prof. Taylor teaches is professional responsibility.


  42. I did have the pleasure of working with a Saint Louis law graduate about four years ago. The company was owned by Thomson Reuters as in Westlaw. The company paid me the princely sum of 34k a year. As a senior researcher, she was probably cracking the low 40's. Oh, to make it even better there also were graduates from Franklin Pierce and of course Thomas Cooley!

  43. LawProf:

    The Brookings Institution has an interesting book on the legal profession. It is written by an economist named Clifford Stanley. I read the first chapter as it was free. Mr. Stanley gives valuable historical context on law schools and licensing of lawyers. One of his main points which is not to controversial here is that there is no rational reason to require three years of schooling to become a lawyer.

  44. Correction, the economist is named Clifford Winston not Clifford Stanley. Also, Mr. Winston has a short video on the Brookings web site. Also, the book has two co authors.

  45. Reading his bio, I'm sure that Mr. Taylor may indeed conclude that the system works. It worked beautifully for him.

    He's got a J.D. from Howard and an Ed.D. from Vanderbilt. He was running admissions for masters' programs in Harvard's graduate programs in education, before moving on to an assistant deanship at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Except for a brief period where he worked as a clerk processing ethics complaints against members of the D.C. bar, he hasn't practiced law whatsoever.

    And here he is, touting NALP figures with zero caveats about accuracy or completeness, to people who won't know better until it's too late. Meth pushers should stand a little taller, because they manage to do essentially the same thing as Aaron N. Taylor without the degrees from Howard and Vanderbilt.

  46. I went to Vanderbilt. My dad taught at Vanderbilt. This Taylor creature makes me turn red with shame and embarrassment. God! A Federal grand jury should be handing down an indictment on this bottom-dwelling sludge feeder. He is essentially saying: "Prospective lemming, shall we conspire together to defraud the American tax-payer?"

  47. Along with LawProf, I am speechless at the spectacle of Dean Taylor's unmitigated gall. I do hope somebody reports on what, if anything, happens to Aaron Taylor. My prediction, based only on 44 years in the business intuition and not on "facts", is that quality of the applicants will continue to decline as will the total number of applicants. Schools seeking to maintain their ranking will see their average LSAT scores decline unless they lower class size, which will in turn lower income. Some may step up the competition for the better students with scholarships and tution/fee waivers with more negative pressure on the bottom line. As budgets decrease salaries and lines will decrease. As LawProf and others on this blog have said the current model is not sustainable. I believe that even Dean Taylor cannot stop the decline.

  48. Prof. Campos,

    My understanding of IBR is that where you make a payment that is less than the accruing interest the principal balance of the loan grows and makes escaping IBR all but impossible.

    Could you shed some light on what the slime-ball above calls a "back door scholarship?" The "IBR makes everything ok" crowd is asking for a counter-point.

    Terry Malloy

  49. That article was a good example of someone having no comprehension of what it would actually be like to graduate with a six-figure debt in your 20s and very weak job prospects.

    Wow, after "only 25 years of low income" you will get the balance wiped out! You mean to tell me that should encourage people to attend?! What 20-something wants to look forward to a large debt and low income until they're 50 to take advantage of that "back door scholarship?"

    But I can guarantee you that that article is being forwarded around from prospective law student to prospective law student (and to those currently in law school) and it will help solidify the decision for many to take the plunge. Not that they wouldn't have taken the plunge anyway, but this guy is an ignoramus.

    I wonder how many recent grads he spoke with before typing that article.

    And regarding the responses to my earlier comment(s): I hope you're all right and that these lawsuits lead to discovery, etc. I will be completely shocked if they do, but that would be huge.


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