March 3, 2008
Fair Warning to Law Schools ... Deadwood Investigators Coming to Your Website
Many (most?) but not all law schools simply cannot stand to be what they are, namely run of the mill. Not as in diploma mill fashion, but just down right ordinary. Enter the marketing component of law school publications, the law porn published in slick brochures, magazines, and now law school websites. You've seen the puffery which tries to entice unwitting prospective students to apply for admissions, alumni to write big checks without stipulations about how the funds will be used, and new profs to join the "best" under-appreciated law faculty in the country. As Ross Davies (George Mason) recently explained in an Inside Higher Ed interview, "All our faculty are the same: Each one is an active scholar, an active teacher, and committed to law in the service of the public. ... We have 180-190 institutions saying, We are bastions of teaching, scholarship and service."
Such puffery is double-edged. Someone with the time, energy, resources, and courage (yes, courage) to reality-check claims made by law schools about their faculty is needed to cut through these exaggerations; it's long overdue (and many largely silent law profs would agree, I think). Enter the Deadwood Report. Sponsored by Green Bag, it will test the accuracy of claims law schools make. [George Mason press release] The focus will be on the most objective of measures: "whether the work is being done – whether each law school faculty member is teaching courses, publishing scholarly works, and performing pro bono service."
Beginning this spring, George Mason law prof Ross Davies, editor-in-chief of Green Bag since 1997, and a team of research assistants will begin gathering information from law school websites for Green Bag's first substantial effort to help applicants make more informed decisions for admission to or employment by law schools. The first effort may not solve this problem but over time the Deadwood Report could contribute to reigning in law schools' more spacious claims.
Such an effort wouldn't been needed if law schools policed themselves or if the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association held the legal academy accountable but these organizations "'appear to be committed to obfuscation'” and avoid qualitative assessment of law schools at all costs" according to Green Bag. Let the nightmare of reality checking begin; nightmare for the PR folks, law school administrators and law profs responsible for this widespread phenomena, that is.
Time to Edit Law School Websites. So law schools, keep your websites current, weed out the self-promotional language that is too laughable to be taken seriously by insiders, your fellow colleagues, because the Deadwood Report is coming. It's about time. I wonder how many members of the legal academy are contacting Davies right now to call attention to some nonsense published by their law schools on their websites. I certainly could come up with examples; bet you could too.
The sad truth is that all too often law students discover that what law school websites claim is substantially less than what law schools deliver. They simply do not believe the legal academy would stoop to marketing practices perfected to persuade consumers to buy one brand of canned soup over another. The tens of thousands of dollars spent by individual law schools to "brand" themselves and to create slick websites to market themselves is shameful. And the content, well finding accurate information in a forest of puffery is not always an easy task. One need only try to determine how frequently upper-level courses listed in a law school's online catalog of course descriptions are being offered to appreciate the problem; after that, try to figure out if a course is being taught by an expert in the field, dumped on an nontenured prof who has no interest in the subject matter, or assigned to a adjunct who is teaching non-practice related courses to fill in gaps in the knowledge base of the regular faculty.
Kudos to Davies for taking dead aim at this issue.
Read more about the Deadwood Report in Ross Davies' Green Bag editorial: Fair Warning to Law Schools ... and an Invitation to 1Ls, 2Ls & 3Ls (available on SSRN). Here's the abstract:
Aspiring law students and professors should have more and better information about the relative quality of law schools. Unfortunately, the people in the best positions to provide that information - the AALS and ABA - have powerful reasons to avoid doing so. The void has been filled in part by the U.S. News rankings. We could go on about their defects and limitations, but we have done that before. U.S. News could improve its product, but why bother? Doing more and better work would be costly, and in the absence of a genuine competitive threat there is no reason to make the investment. Enter the Deadwood Report, in which the Green Bag will provide rough and admittedly partial but transparent measures of law school faculty quality by measuring teaching, scholarship, and (eventually) service. Law schools generally hold themselves out as institutions led by faculties whose members are committed to working in all three areas. Why? Because - according to the law schools and many leaders of the profession - the best teachers tend to be active scholars, and the best scholars tend to be active teachers, and all the best lawyers of every stripe engage in service for the public good. Evidence of the law schools' commitment to this view is reflected in the practically universal requirement of high achievement in all three areas for tenure. And so we should be able to say with some confidence that a good law school will have a faculty consisting of hard-working teacher-scholar-humanitarians. The Deadwood Report will simply test the accuracy of that picture. Our focus will be on the most dully objective of measures: whether the work is being done - whether each law school faculty member is teaching courses, publishing scholarly works, and performing pro bono service.
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