August 12, 2005
Law Porn and the Branding of Legal Education
Posted by Victor Fleischer

Yesterday's NYT had a story on branding colleges.  Today, in my research on branding, I ran across an article that uses "education" as a prime example of a credence good.  Which got me to thinking.  Is law school a credence good?  If so, it's shocking that law schools are just recently coming around to recognize the importance of branding. 

Goods can be broken down into three categories: (1) search goods, where quality can be assessed easily before purchase, like clothing or furniture, (2) experience goods, where quality can be assessed easily after purchase, like a haircut or a lawnmover, and (3) credence goods, where quality is difficult to assess even after purchase, like financial advice, auto repair, or, I think, a law school education. 

Is law school a credence good?  I think it is.  At first blush, you might think that experiencing law school would quickly tell you if it's good or bad.  But even after the fact, I suspect many graduates are unsure if they got what they paid for.  Some feel cheated by the absence of practial coursework.  I agree that we can try to do a better job of preparing our graduates for the real world (as I try to do in my Deals course).  But at the same time I think law school education often delivers what it promises.  All that Socratic method and legal theory improves one's ability to think critically and think like a lawyer.  Or maybe it's just that our students are pretty darn smart when they come in to law school.  Hard to know.  Law school, in sum, is a credence good.   

Branding is especially important for credence goods.  Brian Leiter, who seems to find branding a little unseemly, has begun a Sextonism watch.  Preposterous hyperbole may not be the best way to create a brand image.  But so-called "law porn" (glossy brochures) has a utility as well.  It communicates the brand image of the school to students, employers, and alums.  Employers have different expectations when they interview a Chicago law grad (law and econ brand) vs. a Columbia law school grad (Wall Street brand) vs. a Yale Law School grad (squishy theory brand).  This is also true in B-schools: compare Wharton (finance brand) with HBS (leadership brand) with Kellogg (branding brand).  Sometimes these brand images may encourage somewhat inaccurate stereotypes, but at least they offer a frame of reference for evaluating the product.  They allow consumers to understand a bit better what they are buying, what to expect during school, and what to expect afterwards. 

But while I defend "law porn," I won't defend Sextonism, at least as Leiter defines it.  I'm not morally offended by it, nor do I think it is beneath the dignity of academics to think about branding.  Rather, such hyperbole is just bad marketing.  Schools that oversell the brand on the front end may pay the price in the long run with unhappy alums.  But schools that have no brand image at all make it even harder for students to evaluate what they have purchased. 

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