Politics, Max Weber remarked, is always "the slow boring of hard boards." Serious social reform is always a difficult, slow, and frustrating process, which rewards its proponents with many more defeats than victories. That reform happens, roughly speaking, in two ways: on the structural, institutional level, and on the personal, individual level. On this blog I've been emphasizing the former, which isn't to say that the latter isn't important as well (indeed the former would never happen without the latter).
What would happen if every law professor (or even, say, 65%?) stepped up to the plate and devoted him or herself seriously to redesigning their courses in a way that would produce excellent professionals? What if those professors were willing to read the literature on professional development and to talk to other experts in the field? What if they were willing to treat professional education as a subject itself worthy of serious study and discussion?These are good questions. The answers, I think, are that legal education would be improved significantly if something like this were to happen, both because the substantive quality of what goes on in law school classrooms would improve as a result, and because even asking these sorts of questions in a serious way would lead to further questions about how legal education could be restructured to be much more cost-effective and life-enhancing than it currently is.
And what if those professors were also willing to talk to one another about how their courses might fit into an integrated professional education? And if they also met with practitioners to discuss ways in which legal education could bridge into training during the early years of law practice? And thought of creative ways to integrate willing practitioners into legal education?
The difficulty is that reform at the individual level, while always very important as a spur to social change, can only go so far. Consider an analogy from the world of politics. If one believes that the vast and rapidly growing gap between the rich and the poor in America is a moral outrage, one could exhort rich people to behave better at the individual level, by for example paying their workers higher wages, and contributing more to charity. And it's important to do this -- although not, primarily, because some people will listen to such exhortations and act on them. A few will, but the bigger value of such messages is that they can spur change at a structural level, by putting more and more pressure on the government to do something about the extent to which American society has slid all the way back to Gilded Age levels of economic inequality.
I believe the same is true within the world of law school reform. It's important to exhort legal academics to behave better: to, for example, get us as individuals to work harder to make sure our classes are valuable both intellectually and vocationally to our students; to convince us to fight within our institutions to try to lower or at least freeze tuition; and to encourage us to demand that our employers publish genuine employment and salary data, and to not take no for an answer when they refuse.
All this is important, and indeed imperative. Still in the long run trying to bring about reform at the level of individual behavior is a means to a greater end, which is to spur institutional and structural reform. Individual change can only go so far, because, for individuals as individuals, the institutional and structural incentives are, at present, all wrong. Again, to analogize to the larger political world, if families who have incomes of $40,000,000 per year pay a lower percentage of their total income in taxes than families with incomes of $40,000 (as is actually the case in the USA at present) then all the moral exhortation in the world isn't going to do much, in a direct way, to lessen radical economic inequality. But what that exhortation can do is help move the political process towards the kind of structural reform that will alter basic economic relations toward a more just state of affairs.
One of the ways in which it can do that is by inspiring people within the group that currently benefits disproportionately from the status quo to work to bring about change. If such change depended solely on the ability of those people to convince the group to change the status quo to the group's (at least temporary) disadvantage, then the change would almost certainly not happen. But luckily, change within a privileged group comes about from a combination of internal and external pressure.
What is needed are leaders within the group who will increase the pressure for change both within it and within society in general. If you are a legal academic, you have the choice to be one of those leaders: to fight for institutional reform, fiscal responsibility, and justice for our students. If you do so you will, I suspect, find allies in unexpected places. Perhaps there will be very few of you at your particular institution, at least at first, It's even possible that you'll have to begin more or less alone. But a leader is by definition and by nature the one who goes first.