An Open Letter to My (4th Tier) Law School

Dear 4th-tier law school from which I proudly graduated a few years back:

Hello.

First things first: Yes, I have a job—a law job. My law school loans are being paid.

I can hear you sighing with relief. Now, the real reason for this letter:

I’m sure you’re familiar with this whole Law School Bubble thing. It’s kind of a big deal on the internet. Also, the New York Times. And Congress. Well, you know.

Despite all that, I don’t expect you to voluntarily close your doors any time soon (even if that might make the job market a little better around here for your graduates). After all, being a law professor or dean sounds mostly fun, and the money ain’t bad. But I have another suggestion that you might consider.

I think you could make things a lot easier for everyone, students, faculty, and graduates included, if you would just stop cooperating with US News when they get in touch with you about your next law school ranking. That is a rigged game you can’t win, so you should really just stop playing.

Why you should stop playing

Law school rankings are all about how much money you have. You don’t have enough money, so you are low-ranked. It’s just that simple.

You complain about how the rankings are a mess, and don’t measure how cool your professors and students are, but you keep trying to raise your ranking. The more you try to raise your ranking, the more harm you do to your students because you waste money on stuff US News cares about when you could be spending that money helping your students.

If you just announced to the whole world that you refuse to chase your tail this way any more, and you are going to dedicate all the energy and time and money you used to spend chasing a higher ranking to making your students as employable as possible when they graduate, you’d enjoy a number of benefits, like a ton of free publicity, a load of stress off your mind, and my admiration.

You might just start a trend among other (4th-tier) schools. Wouldn’t that be sweet? You could stick it to the Man! (Or Woman. You choose.)

You could also save money because you wouldn’t have to chase after slightly-more “desirable” students by offering them scholarships. (You recall, I’m sure, that you have to take away a lot of these scholarships after the first year because you don’t have enough money to maintain them. Some people might call that a wee bit, um, disingenuous.)

A radical idea: teach lawyering

You could drop a lot of the classes that you now offer only because the rankings formula doesn’t like the idea of offering classes that would be really useful to new lawyers. For example, you could bring in practicing lawyers to teach students how to practice law and run a law office or a non-profit! That would be sweet. As much as I enjoyed annoying my Admiralty professor, a class on how to do things lawyers actually need to know how to do would have been helpful.

You could require those shy law students to participate in clinics that would teach them how to do lawyer stuff while helping real people in the community! Don’t worry, if the students survive a year of Civ Pro, they can survive a clinic or two. (Now that I think of it, you could shorten Civ Pro to one semester!) You could even offer free law student help to local law firms that could really use it! That might help newer law offices (they seem to be popping up all over, have you noticed?) to succeed, and some of them might even be able to hire your graduates! Crazy!

After all, you don’t even have to play by the ABA rules any more, as a degree from an accredited law school isn’t even required now to take the bar exam in your state! And, let’s be honest, it’s not like big New York law firms snap up too many of your graduates. Just go nuts! What do you have to lose? I mean, the future of 4th-tier schools is not looking bright right now. Honestly, if the number of students applying for law school continues to drop, your very survival might start to come into question.

One more thing before I go

Remember how I noted that I have a job? Just to be clear, while it pays enough to cover law loans in addition to helping feed a family of four and keeping the house from falling down, it doesn’t leave a lot left over to give to you. So, could you please stop asking for a while? Imagine what you’ll save on printing and postage! Perhaps you could wait until my loans are paid off? I’ll be happy to hear from you then. I’ll be retired, so perhaps I’ll have time to stop by and put a few dollars in your tip jar.

Now go out there and make me proud!

Andy

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  • ptd

    Isn’t that the truth. 11 months after starting my job, my law school called and asked for a gift of $5,000. Then, when I explained that I just started my job and didn’t have much to give, they then asked for $2,000, then $750 etc. I was too polite to just hangup as it was law students who are going off a script, but really? To add insult to injury, they are asking for gifts to help fund scholarships. Do they really think that this is a compelling reason for me to give cash to the school when I have over $60,000 in school loans to repay?

  • Julie

    Fantastic! I’ll sign this letter too!

  • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

    You radical, you. A thought crossed my mind, and I really can’t stand it, but I think this an excellent post and a great idea. Imagine what would happen if all the T4 law schools stopped trying to chase HLS and just teach law. Brilliant.

    • Andy Mergendahl

      You just made my day.

    • Craig

      Sounds like a great plan. This seems to be what my law school is planning on doing (0L going to a brand new school). I just want to be a lawyer and help people with their legal problems.

  • https://plus.google.com/117235644077949816393/about Gyi Tsakalakis

    Andy, very nice. A potential post-script for your letter:

    Don’t do this. And think more like this.

  • Andy

    Nice to see a post with a positive spin and not just another “If you don’t have a full ride to a T14 school, then you might as well kill yourself” post.

    Thanks for the prose.

    At my school, McGeorge, we have a course called Global Lawyering Skills, which is probably similar to the Admiral course you speak of. Also, McGeorge, while tied for 100 with 6 other schools, does not hang its hat on USN ranking in student recruiting. You could make the argument that they don’t since they don’t rank high, but the rebuttal is that they focus on producing practice ready attorneys. They also tend to focus on the fact that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was an instructor there, but who says that lawyers are unpretentious.

    Great post!

  • http://www.lawstudentally.com Judy

    Well said. US News law school ranking deceives students by implying that top tier schools provide superior educational and career opportunities.

  • http://miscellaneouslawyer.blogspot.com.au Miscellaneous Lawyer

    Fantastic!

    A brief note: In Australia, the tradition is not to shop around for the Uni you want to go to, but instead the tradition is to go to the closest University. In South Australia, there are three unis offering Law, and quite honestly, I chose Adelaide because it was (marginally) closer to home. At the end of the day it was the work I put in AFTER law school that got me my job, not the name of my uni.

    On point though, you raise some interesting issues about the way Law Schools are run. (note capitals.) In Australia there is something called the Bishop 9 (or 11, or something) which is the 9 (or 11 or something) subjects that must be covered for a law degree. Students must demonstrate proficiency in those areas. However in my view, those areas are all jurisprudential subjects. Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, Corporate Law, Criminal Law, etc. Once you have completed these, there are almost no required subjects that will increase your employability. Indeed, if you complete a double degree, you can get away with almost NO legal electives.

    So what subjects make a student more employable? I love your ideas; compulsory legal clinics, business management, etc. What about a course on sentencing submissions? Or a compulsory course on Legal Research and Writing. (My university removed that as a compulsory course in my 3rd year…).

    In my experience, law students who got into the (very limited) places in Clinical Legal Practice (an elective) were all employed within 2 months of graduating. They were miles ahead of the rest of us in terms of issue-spotting and analysis. They were even ahead of the students who had been clerking at various prominent law firms, because they had direct client contact from the word go, and had mentors looking after them in those crucial first months. Now THAT would be a bonus to your graduates.

  • TR

    I love this article! It does a great job of laying out many of the problems with legal education. I wish every law school dean and professor would give it some serious consideration!

  • EllaElla

    Solid post. The only thing I would change is the stuff about the ABA. Maybe your state doesn’t require you to go to an ABA accredited school to sit for the bar exam, but almost all states do. Where I’m from, you cannot qualify to skip the bar or even sit for the exam based on your years of practice in another state unless your school was ABA accredited. In the office I worked in as a paralegal, we had several out-of-state lawyers from 4th tier schools who would not have been able to work . Some people move to be closer to aging parents, some people’s spouses get relocated, etc. and you don’t want to handicap your students by limiting them to practicing only in the state in which the school is located.

    Other than that, I agree with all that you said.

  • http://www.passthebaton.biz/ Susan Gainen

    Great post, Andy, supported by a superb post by Guy.

    Here is the tricky part:

    Alumni have great power over their law schools, but it often goes unexercised. Writing from the sidelines makes the writer and the reader feel good, but doesn’t make the slightest movement on the problem-solving meter.

    Should a significant number of alums approach the dean and faculty to talk about their concerns and to offer similar solutions — they can spark change. Of course “change” never happens with the speed which which you might make changes in your own private practice. This is academia, after all.

    Two things are in your favor:
    (1) The newest generation of law school deans are Gen-X. If their memories aren’t completely impaired, they remember that when they and their pals from Law Review went to Giant Law Firms or Big Agencies, that they quickly discovered that they knew nothing about practicing law. Some who were always vectored to teaching might not have cared, but lots of them have this memory burned into their consciousness and reignited by conversations with their pals who are judges or are still in any other kind of active law practice.

    (2) The relatively recent Carnegie Report (Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, 2007) gave a cadre of smart faculty Carnegie’s prestigious think-tank cover for making great changes to the curriculum. The spirit of curriculum reform is everywhere, but it doesn’t have T-shirts or tattoos, so you have to look for it. You may find strong support for the changes you seek when you talk to individual faculty members.

    With hard work and good luck, you and your classmates and kindred spirits in your law school’s faculty and administration may be closer to curriculum reform than you imagine.

    After a long series of meetings, hashing out things like
    (a) Guy’s excellent recommendations,
    (b) your individual experiences as alumni,
    (c) the Carnegie Report and the even older MacCrate Report,
    (d) your state bar’s reports on technical competence and professionalism,
    (e) ABA and AALS requirements for accreditation,
    (f) other law school’s curriculum reform efforts and outcomes (there is no point in repeating other school’s mistakes),
    (g) the pernicious effect of USNews
    (h) and more.

    With all of that digested, you may be able to create a comprehensive proposal for curriculum reform that works for your school and your school’s local and regional legal community. If it is supported by a deep-pocketed alum (or group of donors) with a tight restrictions on how the money is to be spent, you may be able to help your school turn a new leaf in teaching, training, and life after law school.

    Good luck!

    • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

      Some people just suck all the air out of a room.

      • Andy Mergendahl

        I am, at this very moment, laughing. Out loud.
        Take no offense, Susan. But the 4th tier must save itself. I’ve got more important things to do, like tickle my daughter.

  • Vivian Rodriguez

    Adding to the chorus…great post! I’ve always felt that the law school experience can be effectively replaced by a good bar review course; it’s cheaper and accomplishes the same thing in terms of teaching practice skills. I never worried about the ranking, mostly because I couldn’t afford to; and because I was willing to go out on my own from the get go if I could get another solo to mentor me. I was lucky enough to find someone who had been practicing for over 30 years (back in 1988 when I got out), who was willing to mentor me.

    That second link provided by Gyi is right on the money regarding the disconnect between the teaching and the practice. But the bottom line is that if we want to help people, it doesn’t matter where our law school is ranked when we attend. What matters is what we do with the JD once we get out.

  • NC

    “bring in practicing lawyers to teach students how to practice law and run a law office”
    Amen.

  • William Chuang

    Laws schools should teach children how to be lawyers. I chose to enroll in clinics as a law student that required mock oral arguments, and an internship, and learned a lot about the real practice of law. I only wish that this was hammered into us from the beginning. Schools should focus on speaking, legal research and writing much more than they do right now. Legal theory is great because it makes things a lot easier to do in real life, but the nitty-gritty details of legal practice are not focused on at all.