Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Why Is the Legal Academy Incapable of Standing Up for Itself?
I love my job. It is not high-paying, given the alternatives for people with my credentials. And I work very long hours. I work long hours on weekdays, and I work on most weekends as though they were weekdays. I take work with me when I go on vacation. There is rarely a day when I do not work, vacation days included.
Being a law professor has its perks. I have job security. I get to write about topics that interest me, and I get to share a learning experience with students who are motivated and, if I'm doing my job right, excited about the subject matter. I am part of an institution that I have a role in shaping and part of a community in which my expertise and commitment is valued.
But there are numerous forces that resent the legal academy and do all they can to make the working conditions of legal academics outside of the top tier look more like teaching high school. It is not that legal education ought to be impervious to outside criticism, but the solutions that I am seeing to the problems of legal education tend to be driven by anecdote rather than data and by educational models that are not appropriate for legal education.
My own students, with whom I am happy to say I have very good relationships, sometimes complain to me about how "the law school" or the "career planning center" or "the administration" doesn't do enough to get them jobs, or only cares about the Law Review students, etc. Their experience of my institution does not accord with my own, and since I was an administrator for a couple of years, I have intimate knowledge of the workings of every department in my law school.
Here's what I see. I see faculty and staff members who are dedicated -- if not obsessed -- with the institution for which they work. When we get together outside of the law school for social gatherings, we don't talk about sports or movies or the latest legal issues in our fields or before the Supreme Court. We talk about our students' prospects, about our curriculum and about legal education. My law school is a group of people dedicated to the success of our students. We are constantly experimenting to try to find ways teach students more effectively and to better prepare them for the practice of law. In our experimentation, we take wrong steps, but we monitor those steps and strive to correct them. The institution is filled with imperfections because the institution consists of people, and people have their limitations and faults.
In response to the crisis in legal education, my law school has dramatically increased faculty and staff work loads in order to deliver a revised curriculum, devised ways to reduce student debt loads, and greatly increased the resources and opportunities available for students. In my conversations with faculty members from other law schools, I find that while my law school has innovated in unique ways, most law schools are struggling with the same issues and redoubling efforts to meet student needs in new ways.
Law schools are being squeezed. The ABA is creating new standards that will limit the flexibility that educators need to create the best possible learning environments in their classrooms. The legal profession is pressuring law schools to prepare students to practice when those students increasingly arrive at law school without the skills that they will need to succeed as attorneys. Such students need more time, not less, to master doctrine and legal skills, but the profession pushes us to focus on experiential learning, the most complex and expensive form of education, before students have the requisite skills to do so successfully, and at a time of dwindling resources when law schools cannot afford to keep the teaching staff they already have. And students arrive expecting us to hand them jobs when it simply has never been the case that a J.D. guaranteed every student the job of her dreams at the age of 25.
And how do legal academics respond to these attacks that come at them from every direction? With some rare exceptions, we respond with self-flagellation. This is the first of a series of posts in which I plan to defend my profession. Outside perspectives are welcome, but the truth is that we know our own business better than anyone, and we ought to be full-throated in defending those parts of our educational model that work for our students.
Future posts will defend legal pedagogy, including hiding the ball, legal scholarship, and the wisdom of investing in legal education. Stay tuned.