Yesterday I took part in a discussion at Stanford Law School, at an event sponsored by 17 student groups. Perhaps 100 students attended (along with a couple of faculty and Stanford's Chief Financial Officer). I spoke for about 20 minutes regarding the economics of legal academia and legal practice, Professor Deborah Rhode made a brief and very helpful response, and then we had a 45-minute discussion with the audience.
The event was recorded, and will be available on Youtube in a day or two, so I don't want to spend much time describing its precise substance, as interested readers can watch it there. Instead I'll make a couple of general observations and comment on one or two specific details.
As I told the organizers afterwards, I was impressed and inspired by the students' enthusiasm and engagement. These, after all, are the legal one per cent -- the people who have made it to the very top of where one can be in this profession at this stage of one's nascent career. If anyone has an excuse and an incentive to stay snugly within the same bubble of denial and delusion that continues to be the home of so many legal academics, these students do.
Instead, I encountered a level of activism and energy that was truly heartening. These young people, privileged as they are at the moment, realize that something has gone badly wrong with the script that's been read to them since they were children, regarding how success is defined and achieved in the culture within which they find themselves. What's gone wrong goes far beyond what's gone wrong with legal academia and the legal profession, of course -- but as a great philosopher once said, we must all cultivate our own gardens, and this, at the moment, is theirs.
The most arresting moment in the discussion was when a man who identified himself as a 2010 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania law school described his present (unemployed and debt-ridden) situation: one which he shares with a significant minority of his fellow graduates. Here was someone who was testifying to what I characterized as the rising water line -- the creeping catastrophe that has left perhaps 30% of the third year class at Columbia (and 40% of the class at NYU, and 50% of the class at Michigan, and 60% of the class at Georgetown) in some sort of situation that the members of that class would have considered quite a bit less than minimally acceptable on the day, three years or ages ago, when they received their acceptance letters.
Stanford, for now, remains above the water line But when the levee breaks . . .
Speaking of which. (H/T to a Duke 3L). I wouldn't be surprised if the Board of Trustees of Duke University and the administration of its law school consider a tuition hike of "only" 4% to be an exercise in admirable restraint. But in how many other sectors of society can one keep raising the price of something whose value is clearly declining? And why does it cost more per year to go to Duke's law school than its medical school, given that graduation from the medical school all but legally guarantees one an actual job in one's chosen profession -- and one that, on average, is going to end up paying quite a bit more than the legal jobs a significant percentage of Duke's law school graduates will never even get?
These are the kinds of questions that a lot of students at Stanford's law school are now asking. From what I've seen, they're going to keep asking them until they begin to get something resembling real answers. And that in itself is a reason for optimism.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
-- Attributed to Margaret Mead --