I once knew Rick Hills slightly. At the beginning of his academic career he was what would now be called a VAP at CU, and we tried to hire him onto the faculty. He was a bright, charming, ambitious, and what in another context would be called a connected guy: his mother was a big deal politician, his father was a former SEC chairman (in addition to all this Carla and William Hills founded what's now Munger, Tolles & Olson), and it was easy enough to predict he was going to do quite well in this thing of ours. And I gather he has.
Yesterday he posted a complaint on Prawfsblawg (since deleted) which began like this:
I have a gripe about law students' lack of what might be called a "professional ethic." But maybe my grumpiness is just the irritated ennui brought on by grading 90 exams. Consider the following interaction, and tell me whether I am wrong to think that kids nowadays are unusually callow and immature.Hills then went on to complain about the behavior of one of his students, a 2L who had agreed in March to be his research assistant this summer, but who backed out of the job the following month after getting an offer to be a summer associate for a firm.
Hills was at least cognizant enough of economic reality to recognize that this was a case of, to put it in contract law jargon, efficient breach --that the gain to the student from taking this opportunity outweighed the inconvenience to him -- but apparently he wanted compensation, in the form of a sufficiently groveling apology, preferably in person. Instead he had to settle for an email from her, which he had the poor judgment to reproduce in the post. (As DJM pointed out in a comment in the deleted thread, reproducing the email was arguably a FERPA violation.)
Update: Hills has apologized for the original post.
Update II: I've received messages from Hills that, for what it's worth, lead me to believe his apology is genuine rather than a strategic gesture.
Before he deleted the post Hills got a healthy dose of reality therapy, in the form of serious blow back from commentators. I was particularly pleased to see at least a couple of law professors other than the fearless DJM actually post critical comments under their own names. This response from Steven Lubet, regarding whether the student's handling of the situation represented "a professional ethic," was on point:
Ask the 30 law students who suddenly found themselves without summer jobs at Dewey LeBoeuf while hundreds of partners scrambled to find new positions for themselves. Did any of those partners -- some of whom control quite a bit of business -- even think about trying to bring along a summer associate or two? If so, it certainly hasn't gotten any press. And the suddenly jobless associates and staff were all notified, as it happens, by email.
I'd like to make just a few comments about this revelatory little incident:
(1) This is what clueless privilege looks like. I have no reason to think Hills is a "bad guy," in the sense that he's particularly insensitive or self-regarding or otherwise narcissistic. It would be nice to think that his behavior could be explained in those terms, but unfortunately this kind of behavior is completely normal and predictable from people who live extraordinarily privileged lives, that feature thick layers of money and status between themselves and all manner of unpleasantness.
Hills could not have written what he wrote if he had any sense of what a potential professional and personal catastrophe is looming over an NYU 2L who has agreed to work as an RA during the summer before her third year. Now it's possible that the student in question comes from the kind of background where not getting a big firm job isn't a disaster even after spending upwards of $250K to go to law school -- a background like Hills' own say -- but even at NYU this is fairly unlikely, and in any case expectations of what constitutes "professional behavior" need to be based on the circumstances of the average professional, not those of people who, to quote a great philosopher, have been born on third base and think they've hit a triple.
(2) The fact that Hills hired a 2L is symptomatic of what's happening all over the legal employment market. If Hills can hire 2Ls to do scut work for him for low hourly wages the summer before their third year, that's a big problem for NYU students in general. "Normally" (that is, in terms of a "normal" situation that may well never return) professors at elite schools have to hire 1Ls as summer RAs, because if you don't have a real legal job in the summer before your third year, you're in a world of hurt. Is Hills aware that an NYU 3L without a job might as well be at Cardozo or Brooklyn? Because this person isn't going to get hired at OCI. And people who don't get hired at OCI are, in most cases, going to graduate without jobs. And law students -- even NYU law students -- who graduate without jobs these days are basically screwed, to use a term of art.
But Hills prefers to hire a 2L rather than a 1L, because all things being equal a 2L is going to make a better RA than a 1L, and he doesn't have to "settle" for a 1L -- just like the employer advertising for an entry-level legal job no longer has to settle for people who don't have significant experience. That's great for employers but a total disaster for law students, even NYU students, nearly 10% of whom were hired by NYU after they graduated last year at this time.
(3) Hills' pique over the failure of his student to apologize to him in a "professional" manner shows how little he understands -- or more accurately is willing to let himself understand -- about the enormous hierarchical gap between himself and someone he was going to pay barista-level wages (minus benefits) to help him with his research. When I read the email the student sent him (which I'm not going to reproduce since it shouldn't have been published in the first place) it was obvious that the student who wrote it had agonized about how to reveal her decision to a person who she has every reason to believe could do serious damage to her career prospects if he were so inclined. Hills wanted -- or thought he wanted -- an exchange between putative social equals, but everything about law school is designed to make such a conversation impossible.
(4) Hills' complaint about grading exams is also revelatory. Law professors despise grading exams because it's one of the very few times when we actually have to perform what most people, and especially most lawyers, think of as a job: that is, an unpleasant set of tasks that must be performed in return for money. When I first started this little project I pointed out that a lot of legal academics don't do much work, even liberally construed. This is true: being a law professor doesn't really require more than 20 hours a week (this is a generous estimate) of work, or what is called work. People teach three to six hours per week, write "law review articles" (the latter activity is about as difficult as falling off a turnip truck for anybody with an ounce of quasi-academic talent), and do a little bureaucratic identity maintenance (committees, faculty meetings, collegial workshops).
Of course places like NYU self-select for people who in fact do "work hard" -- but here's the thing: It's not really work if you don't really have to do it. When I got a lot of criticism from law professors for pointing out that a lot of them don't actually do much of anything, I got a nice email from a former professor of mine, a brilliant and accomplished scholar and a terrific teacher, who said this:
I think the idea of calling what I do a job, or work, is a misnomer. First of all because I love it. I am doing exactly what I would be doing if I were independently wealthy, except for grading papers and faculty meetings.Exactly. And this gets to the heart of what's most obnoxious about Hills' reaction. Hills gets paid $300,000 per year (I'm estimating) to do exactly what he wants to do 96.3% of the time. His students will be lucky -- and they will be, in comparison to most law students, extremely lucky indeed -- to get paid half as much to do work that will fill them with boredom and dread 96.3% of the time. An increasingly large minority of them will end up much worse off than that: they'll end up in low-paying soul-crushing jobs while carrying enormous loads of non-dischargeable debt.
This is not a sustainable situation, either in economic or ethical or political terms. We cannot roll in such extraordinary privilege, treating those who subsidize our charmed lives with contemptuous insouciance ("what is it with kids today!") without taking account that one day a different kind of bill may be presented to the American elite and its hangers-on for what we took and how we took it.
Here's a passage from Orwell I've quoted before, which is worth recalling:
The one thing that everyone who has read A Tale of Two Cities remembers is the Reign of Terror. The whole book is dominated by the guillotine — tumbrils thundering to and fro, bloody knives, heads bouncing into the basket, and sinister old women knitting as they watch. Actually these scenes only occupy a few chapters, but they are written with terrible intensity, and the rest of the book is rather slow going. But A Tale of Two Cities is not a companion volume to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Dickens sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will follow. He repeats this over and over again. We are constantly being reminded that while ‘my lord’ is lolling in bed, with four liveried footmen serving his chocolate and the peasants starving outside, somewhere in the forest a tree is growing which will presently be sawn into planks for the platform of the guillotine, etc., etc., etc. The inevitability of the Terror, given its causes, is insisted upon in the clearest terms:
It was too much the way... to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown — as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it — as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain terms recorded what they saw.
All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a spring, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.
In other words, the French aristocracy had dug their own graves.