Law Schools Are Changing, But How and Why?

law schools change

The drumbeat of the impending doom of law schools seems to have quieted, what with the shuttering of Paul Campos’ Inside the Law School Scam, the ongoing sort-of-recovery in the economy, and, perhaps most likely, the media finding more compelling law stories to tell. But just because you’re not seeing law school stories in the New York Times lately doesn’t mean anything has really changed.

Evil (for profit) law school!

One fascinating story last week was about two “tenured” professors at the for-profit corporate-owned Phoenix Law School who were fired after they opposed plans to prevent students from transferring to other schools. The professors opposed the dean’s plan that directed faculty to refuse to write letters of recommendation, changed first-year curriculum to not match up with other schools, and other tricks to prevent transfers. The dean called the plan, tellingly, “building a better mousetrap.” The two professors, who are married, also claim they were fired after they objected to a “systematic program to undermine and, in some cases ignore, the role of faculty in the governance of the Phoenix School of Law, including an attempt to reduce or eliminate the ability to attain tenure, and to reduce or eliminate the faculty’s role in setting admission standards.”

At this point in the article I found myself angry at both the school’s administration for treating the students so poorly (who could blame a Phoenix Law School student with good 1L grades for wanting to transfer to a higher-rated school?) and at the investors that put up the money to open the school. It’s easy to imagine the sales pitch to prospective faculty: oh, absolutely this is a traditional law school, with the faculty running the show, please sign here, thank you, only to cut them off at the knees when the bottom line called for it (what’s that? you’re arguing with our hand-picked lackey dean? Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out).

Wait, evil law professors!

But I kept reading, and learned that the couple claim that InfiLaw (which owns the school) CEO Rick Inatome said at a meeting “that law schools’ faculty were the primary cause of problems with law school.”

And that made all my anger at the school disappear (but not for the reasons Infilaw would want).

Because, as I’ve noted again and again, it’s faculty that have ruined law schools’ once-sterling reputation and made them the object of well-deserved derision. Their seemingly unquenchable thirst for reduced teaching requirements has been virulently combined with their lust for fatter and fatter salaries—all on the backs of their students.

So the corporate lackey’s dean’s complaint rings true. But of course not for any of the reasons he’s thinking of.

A pox on all your houses!

The dean’s complaint is true not because his school’s faculty make it hard for him to deliver profits to the school’s investors. It’s true because of the unfettered greed of the faculty of traditional non-profit law schools, combined with the fact that none of them provide their students with lawyering skills. No, the faculty focus their energies (and therefore their students’ borrowed money) on “scholarship,” meaning the faculty’s production of law review articles (that are selected and edited by law students—someone please explain this to me) that almost nobody reads.

The for-profit law schools’ marketing is all about selling prospective students on how they teach “practical skills” (translation: how to do stuff lawyers actually do). Their prospective students can’t get into top tier schools, but are savvy enough to know all about the non-profit schools’ misrepresentation of how many of their graduates get law jobs. And the prospective students know the traditional schools don’t focus on preparing students to pass the bar exam, which of course is required for a license and a job.

So who’s worse?

All of which raises the question of whether students and (one might add, if one were really, really crazy) the under-served public (which is a lot of people) might be better served by the increasing for-profit privatization of law education.

Let’s look at tenure first. Tenure is a wonderful tradition that protects scholars (once they have proven their academic chops are up to par) and allows them to pursue scholarship (or political activity) without fear of reprisal from their schools. Without tenure, for example, we might never have heard from two of the greatest law school whistle-blowers, Paul Campos and Brian Tamanaha, each of whom, had they not had the protection of tenure, would not have been able to provide irrefutable accounts of what really went on inside their law schools.

On the other hand, tenure, which according to Tamanaha is rarely denied in law schools, can also enable professors to lose their ambition and simply “mail it in” for decades, knowing they are untouchable. I distinctly recall my torturous journey trying to get one of my law school professors to simply read and grade my independent study paper—when he finally did, it was patently obvious he had spent about five minutes reading it before slapping a brief and entirely unhelpful comment on it next to my grade.

It’s typical for liberal-leaning law students and graduates to love tenure, as they think it protects their political allies in the schools. And conservative lawyers love to bash the law schools as liberal incubators. But consider this: If laws are written by those who win the wars (whether political or involving bullets and bombs), is it crazy to suggest that law schools are inherently conservative institutions? Even if they appear to be “liberal” compared to a wide-angle snapshot of a particular moment, doesn’t their precedent-based instruction make them first and foremost part of “the establishment?”

So what’s really changed at the “gatekeepers of the profession?” The answer is: not nearly enough, at least not yet.

(image: picture of woman with no entry sign from Shutterstock)