One aspect of the current crisis which can be particularly disheartening is the level of indifference many people in legal academia display towards it. It's true that almost no one has the sheer chutzpah to come right out and say, when confronted with the fact that law school is turning into something of a catastrophe for a larger and larger percentage of our graduates, "I've got mine, Jack" (suitably dressed up in academic jargon of course). Plenty of people are ready to engage in what a perceptive colleague of mine describes as "upper-class hand-wringing."
But talk is cheap -- while doing anything to change the status quo is another matter altogether. And, as my colleague suggests, this is to a significant extent a class-based phenomenon. I actually heard a middle-aged law professor say recently, in the context of a broad-ranging discussion of this subject, that it wasn't necessarily a big problem that more than half our graduates aren't getting real law jobs, because after all the prospect of practicing law for the rest of one's professional life was something she herself had found distasteful in the years immediately following her graduation from law school.
Really, what can one say in response to this sort of money-sheltered ignorance? It's no coincidence this person comes from the sort of background where the prospect of not being able to pay the rent or fix a broken car or go to the dentist will always remain, short of social revolution, as abstract as the prospect of being a third world peasant.
Of course a certain percentage of our students -- I would guess about one in five -- come from similar backgrounds. For them, if law school "doesn't work out," they can go backpacking in Europe for six months and then try something else.
A much larger percentage of our students come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds, broadly defined. These are people who probably aren't going to face the prospect of real hardcore poverty, because they do have enough social capital to fall back on -- for instance they can move back in with their parents, as more and more law graduates are doing -- until they can figure out a way, via IBR and their previous educational and work experience, to carve out some semblance of a middle class existence after they've given up on trying to be real lawyers (although many of them won't be able to buy houses, start families, or engage in some other traditional indulgences of American middle class life).
Then there's a group of people who come from truly modest social and economic backgrounds. Since we've tripled tuition over the past seven years there are fewer and fewer of these, and what they're going to do when they end up not getting legal jobs is something that isn't pleasant to think about, which is why for the most part we simply don't.
Part of all this is generational: it's difficult for the older faculty in particular to come to grips with just how much more expensive law school is now, and how much worse the job market has gotten for lawyers -- not merely in the last three years, but over the course of a slow but fairly steady two-decade-long contraction that predated the current recession (This contraction was masked in part by the fact that starting salaries -- though not long-term compensation prospects -- kept going up for those law grads who got associate positions with big firms).
But part of it is very much class-based. If people come from the sort of background where from early childhood on they and most of the people they socialize with went to expensive private schools, elite undergraduate colleges, and tony graduate and professional programs, it's a lot harder for those people to genuinely understand -- at both an intellectual and emotional level -- that most people in this country, and even in our own classrooms, don't have an attractive Plan B in life when Plan A turns into a six-figures-of-high-interest-nondischargable-debt-with-no-reasonable-job-prospects disaster.
When facing something like the current crisis of the American law school, that sort of background makes it a lot easier to wring one's hands, utter sympathetic-sounding banalities, and then do nothing.