September 01, 2011
In defense of the law school scam blog … and of law schools
Posted by David Zaring

I’m enjoying reading Paul Campos’s critique of legal education, and partly that’s because Campos is really quite good at blogging.  The posts are perhaps a smidgen long, but they are engaging, and they make the anti-law school case well.  I’m not sure how long he can keep up the pace, but if he put all those posts together, and hired an RA to footnote them, he’d have a thought-provoking law review article.  Here’s where I think the project goes wrong (here's Christine), I’ll artificially divide the points into four bullets, but really, the point is that law schools, comparatively, give their graduates something of value, and academia something of value too.

  • If the study isn’t a comparative one, how useful is it, Part I?  Law schools are one of a suite of professional graduate schools dotting the campuses of large research universities.  But for every single one of them, with the possible exception of medical schools, the charge that what is taught is not what is practiced is leveled every single time.  Divinity schools, business schools, government schools, education schools – you name it.  Before indicting legal education, you have to have an alternative in mind.  Is that alternative medical school?  Should universities be recreated as one big medical school?  Medical schools do seem to be different than other professional schools in their educational metier, but not in entirely good ways – without wanting to be too philosophical about it, would you want every professional school graduate to be educated like a doctor and every single professor to be like a med school professor?  Maybe we can’t afford the commitment to reading, writing, and disputation that you get from professors who don't write 6 author, 5 page long articles backed by thousands of dollars of government funding, and students who don’t round.  But maybe it is a commitment worth making.
  • If the study isn’t a comparative one, how useful is it, Part II?  There’s a lot of new law schools out there.  But you know what graduate programs have been expanding even faster?  Creative writing programs.  Seriously (184 today, up from 15 in 1975).  Those programs prepare you for nothing other than low paid teaching jobs, and they’re doing fine.  If law school is a scam, what are the avidly consumed creative writing programs providing?  Campos and other law school critics might try to get their heads around the MFA explosion before indicting the law school one in isolation.  It could be that students get something out of graduate school other than guaranteed jobs - indeed, you might even say there is a market for "useless" post-graduate education in the United States.
  • If markets (for law degrees) aren’t always efficient, surely they aren’t totally inefficient?  I’m from Iowa, and at least until very recently, the excellent law school there offered heavily subsidized (by Iowa taxpayers) degrees that enabled its students to get well-paid jobs in Chicago and Minneapolis.  Because I see the world through Iowan lenses, I’ve found the recent massive run up in tuition in public and private law schools to be untroubling, to say the least.  Why should state taxpayers, or big donors, for that matter, be subsidizing the future earnings of law school graduates?  It’s an empirical question as to whether law school degrees are correctly priced, but my guess is that Yale law degrees are still underpriced, and, as to those overpriced bottom tier law schools, there may be a reasonable solution.
  • If law schools are so academically useless, why do all research universities want them?  I now teach at a business school, often thought to be money spinners for universities.  But there are fewer graduate business schools (158 by this count) in the country than there are law schools.  Seems mysterious, doesn’t it?  I think it’s because law schools, not for always benign reasons, make universities look good.  You can criticize legal scholarship all you want, but law professors are pretty smart.  Almost as smart as business school professors! In fact, law schools have tended to be the professional school cognate of economics departments – the place where a lot of academic energy is generated, the jewel in the crown of whatever institution they are at, sometimes to the resentment of the faculty in the rest of the university.  And yes, yes, Campos is on to something with the social sorting point.

In every single service-provision enterprise, there’s going to be a strong case made that the service provided is misvalued.  Internal criticisms along these lines are constantly being made for humanities Ph.D. programs (correctly), Hollywood filmmaking (incorrectly), and so on.  Sometimes the critique is informative, and surely all is not rosy in the law school line of service provision.  But the question is not whether legal education is the platonic ideal of academic achievement and professional instruction, but rather whether it compares well to similar forms of service provision, and whether people want the service. 

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