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September 10, 2011

Interesting comments from Dean Chemerinsky on his "Ideal Law School for the 21st Century"

I just came across this article on SSRN titled "The Ideal Law School for the 21st Century."  The piece is authored by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the new UC Irvine law school, and it describes his experiences starting the school and his "vision" for UCI Law School.   Here is one passage discussing this vision I found especially blog-worthy:

I felt from the outset that if we simply replicated other law schools we will have failed. There is not a need for another law school like all of the others that already exist.  I felt from the outset that if we simply replicated other law schools we will have failed.  There is not a need for another law school like all of the others that already exist.

My central vision is that I want us to do the best possible job of preparing students for the practice of law at the highest levels of the profession.  I certainly did not graduate from law school ready to practice law. On my first day at my first job after graduating from law school, as a trial attorney at the United States Department of Justice, my supervising lawyer told me that an answer to a particular question could be found in the local rules of the federal district court.  I did not know that there were local rules of the federal district.

Law schools do many things well, including teaching students skills such as the ability to read cases and construct legal arguments, and instructing students on the doctrines in many areas of law. But as many reports have noted, law schools are far less successful in preparing students for the practice of law.There are many reasons for this.  I believe that elite law schools have long eschewed this as a primary objective.  Long ago, they adopted the mantra that they teach students to think like lawyers and leave practical training for after graduation.

Also, the nature of most law school classes, a single instructor in front of a large number of students, does not lend itself to training in skills.  This format of instruction works for conveying information, but skills cannot be learned in this way.  No one would learn how to be a tennis player or a play a musical instrument by exclusively or primarily sitting in a classroom; that is true of any skill.  More subtly, having a single instructor in front of a large number of students limits most evaluations in law school to the grade from a single final examination.  No skills are taught by this experience; there is not even good instruction on the skill of taking law school exams because generally students receive no feedback other than a grade about their performance.

I also fear that the lack of skills training in most law schools is, in part, because most law school faculty are not equipped or oriented towards doing this.  The trend over the last couple of decades, especially in elite schools, is to hire individuals with Ph.D.s, but with no practice experience.  Even those who have practiced before going into teaching generally have done so for only a very short time.  I have observed that very few faculty at elite law schools are actively engaged in the practice of law.  My impression is that this has decreased over the thirty years that I have been an academic, partially because publication and other demands have increased and partially because those being hired are less oriented towards doing so.

Posted by DAB

September 10, 2011 in Teaching -- new courses, The mission of law schools | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 7, 2011

The Moral Hazard of Big Law Firms

When I look through resumes of those hoping to become law professors, I usually find one common element:  A short stay (1-4 years, usually) at a large law firm.  Why did these people leave after that time?  Some, no doubt, were pushed out.  The others decided to switch career tracks on their own, despite success at the firm.  Given that these are smart, well-educated, successful lawyers, why is it that law firms lose them so readily?

The short answer (based on the experience of those I know) is that many of them are miserable working at large law firms, despite the high rate of pay.  It is soul-less and unfulfilling for these top achievers.

Are we doing the right thing in pushing our top students towards these jobs?  In the context of students with a strong Christian faith (and those of other faiths as well), I think it may be a disservice to both that student and the firm.  Recently, I wrote a short book review for the Journal of Christian Legal Thought, reviewing a wonderful book by John Allegretti called The Lawyer's Calling,  Here is the conclusion of that review:

We must be peacemakers...

This may not seem a remarkable thesis, but at its heart is a bedrock rejection of the business practices of those very law firms we send so many of our best and brightest students into. Of course those firms are amoral at best; they are structured that way, and present economic circumstances have only made that worse. We can pretend that this isn’t true, but those of us who have spent time in large firms know better. Neither should we continue to lie to our students, saying or implying that the practice of most large law firms is consistent with the Christian faith. An amoral environment, especially for the powerless junior associate, is anathema to faith, to the idea of vocation, and to the ethic of love.

Allegretti’s book is practical, but it directs us to a nearly impossible challenge: To undo the primary business structure in our field, or at least decline to any longer feed that beast with the bodies and souls of our young. Are we that brave?

I realize that my critique is probably too broad.  I think there ARE law firms that foster healthy vocations for lawyers of faith; I also know that some of my best friends are people of faith who work in good conscience at large firms. 

But still, as a general matter, isn't there something there?

-- Mark Osler




September 7, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 6, 2011

Should you go far away to a higher ranked law school?

Above The Law makes the common claim:

“In most situations, going to the highest ranked U.S. News school that you can is going to be really important for your career.”

It's not clear to me that that is truly the case.  Does it make sense for someone in California to journey across the country to attend a law school that is a few ticks up on the US News ranking?  My suspicion is that, with the exception of the truly national schools--something akin to the top ten or so law schools in the country--most law schools are ultimately regional. That is, I suspect that their graduates generally end up working at firms in the same state--or in states adjacent to--the state of the law school they attend.

Ted Seto has done some important empirical work demonstrating this. In his paper, Where Do Partners Come From?, he argues that one should often choose a law school located in the geographic area in which one hopes to work.

As a professor, I often talk with applicants about how to realize their life goals. I recall in particular a student attempting to choose between Vanderbilt and the school at which I teach – Loyola Los Angeles. His ambition was to become a big-firm partner in Los Angeles. As students often do, he chose the higher U.S. News-ranked school. When he graduated from Vanderbilt, he was unable even to get an interview in LA. Had he attended Loyola, his paper credentials and performance at Vanderbilt suggest that he would have graduated near the top of his class. If he had, his chances of getting a Los Angeles big-firm offer would have been quite high. Again, based on the results of the study reported in this article, I can

Those deciding between law schools might do well to examine the list of firms that actually come calling to that law school's recruitment week.  For the most part, it is uneconomical for a firm to send partners to interview candidates in distant jurisdictions, because few students from those distant locations may be inclined to move to that firm's city. Staying within the state is likely to prove more efficient, in terms of partner time.

Anupam Chander

September 6, 2011 in Employment, Rankings | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 5, 2011

Identifying the disconnect at the center of the "law school scam"

I still continue to find Inside the Law School Scam an interesting and useful read, and this passage from a recent post comparing law schools to other graduate programs (and some follow-up comments) has helped me to see the heart of the problem that keeps pumping blood though the modern legal education market and has allowed the so-called "law school scam" to develop and continue.  First the passage from ILSS (with my emphasis added), then my explanation:

[It] is an interesting comparison [between law schools and the huge recent expansion of creative writing MFA programs], although in some ways an obviously inapt one.   No one goes into an MFA program intending to make lots of money.  Indeed it's notable that such programs never focus on producing successful genre writers -- i.e., the next Stephen King or John Grisham -- but are rather dedicated almost exclusively to literary fiction. Nor, as far as I know, do MFA programs engage in industry-wide placement stat deception.  (Unlike business schools I know something about these programs because my best friend and his wife are graduates of one).  The biggest distinction between law schools and MFA programs goes to the crucial issue of what economists call psychic income.  Lots of people grow up hoping to write the Great American Novel.  Nobody grows up hoping to one day be Henry Kravis's water carrier on a big M&A deal.  People go to law school, with occasional exceptions, in order to acquire a respectable and well-paid career.  MFA programs cater to peoples' dreams.  Law school is where dreams go to die (Yes I'm generalizing).

Implicit in this passage are three critical contentions/assumptions about the professional thinking of some (many? most?) law students: (1) students go to law school intending to "make lots of money" (not because they dream of practicing law), (2) students expect that "average" performance at an "average" law school will result in a in a "respectable and well-paid career," and (3) students rely on deceptive law school placement stats to justify these decisions and expectations.

I trust some (many? most?) law students — especially those who are most aggrieved and vocal in their complains about the "law school scam" — would endorse these three critical contentions/assumptions and agree they help explain why so many recent graduates are now so upset that they "invested" so much in law school and are now not getting a fair (or any) return on that investment.

Changing perspectives, let me articulate what I suspect to be professional thinking of some (many? most?) law professors: (A) students interested primarily in making money should go to business school (because only those with lawyer dreams will be happy lawyers), (B) students with "average" grades at an "average" law school can find legal jobs, but they will need to "pick up their game" in practice to have a "well-paid" legal career, and (C) students who make serious and savvy efforts to find a legal job will eventually get a legal job.  

Perhaps I am wrong to assert that others would embrace points A, B, and C above, but these realities account for why I personally have not been attuned to "law school scam" complaints until quite recently.  I have long believed that (A) those who went to law school for "the wrong reasons" were unlikely to be happy no matter their professional success, (B) my "average" students could and would find legal work at a living wage, and (C) I can help my students land a legal job if they are serious and savvy in their efforts.  (Indeed, I still hold these views, though I now better understand that (too) many law students may be in it "just for the money" and that the recession has made it much harder for "average" students to find legal work at a living wage.  But while these students may often feel "scammed," they do not often come by my office to ask for job-hunting advice.  I often have "top" students coming for job advice, typically to ask which of two job opportunities they ought to pursue, which I now realize greatly distorts my perspective on the legal job market.)

Not to be overlooked here is the inevitable affinity for law schools to spotlight — in recruiting materials and alumni publications — their most successful and happy graduates and to "hide" their least successful and miserable graduates.  A coming attractions even for a lousy Jack Black movie creates the (deceptive?) impression everyone should spend money on that movie even though only Jack Black fans will be content with the product.  (This preview metaphor justifies greater transparency in law school employment data — i.e., studios should not "scam" Brad Pitt fans into paying to see a Jack Black movie by having the whole preview focus on a tiny Brad Pitt cameo.  But this metaphor might help students appreciate the unique (insulated) perspective of law professors: law profs are essentially Jack Black fans (read, law geeks) who assume the only folks paying for their movie (law school) are fellow Jack Black fans who should still appreciate the experience even though better movies (other professional opportunities) might be at the Cineplex.)

So, even as I grow more aware/attune to the "law school scam" and suffering grads, I still have a hard time viewing law professors as avaricious Ponzi schemers eager to drive students into a lifetime of debt to fund a lavish lifestyle.  Instead, I see a group of well-meaning service-providers (law professors/schools) working earnestly to provide what they consider a valuable non-economic service ("teaching students how to think like a lawyer") to some people who are paying a lot of money (law students) problematically believing they are getting a valuable economic service ("becoming a practicing lawyer").   

To the extent that deceptive placement stats fuel this disconnect between the "law school service" most law professors seek to provide and what some (many? most?) law students actually want and expect, more honest employment data should help considerably.  But if one fears (as I do) that much bigger societal and human psychology forces are in play, more honest employment data is just a first step on a long journey toward a sounder legal education system.

Posted by DAB

September 5, 2011 in Admissions to law school, Blogging by lawyers and law professors, Legal profession realities and developments, Serving students, The mission of law schools | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores"

Because of my enduring interest in the relationship between technology and education, I found notable this recent article from the New York Times (with the same headline as this post).  Here is a snippet that follows a discussion of a tech-heavy seventh-grade classroom experience:

[S]chools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.  This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”

Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals.  They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.

Regular readers know I have been asserting for some time that greater use of technology in law school instruction is inevitable; I have also been troubled by what I see as the "Luddite instincts" of some professors who are quick and eager to ban laptops in the classroom.  Perhaps usefully, this article reminds me that nearly every time I see something new about technology and education, I become less sure of their proper relationship.  

Posted by DAB

September 5, 2011 in Technology -- in general, Technology -- in the classroom | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack