Hostile Witness

The movement to label law school a scam gets a new voice -- a tenured professor anonymously describing his colleagues' cushy jobs.
August 9, 2011

These days there are enough blogs on the theme that law school is a scam that there are multiple blogrolls on the subject, where readers can pick among First Tier Toilet!, Fluster Cucked, Subprime JD, Tales of a Fourth Tier Nothing and more. Most of these blogs are run by law students or recent graduates frustrated by a lousy job market, student loan debt and a feeling that they were ripped off by their law schools.

Another unemployed lawyer blog probably wouldn't attract much attention, but these "scam" bloggers have been abuzz about the latest arrival on their blogrolls: a blog sharing many of their points of view, but written by a tenured law professor.

"I can no longer ignore that, for a very large proportion of my students, law school has become something very much like a scam," says the introductory post of the blog, Inside the Law School Scam. "Yet there is no such thing as a 'law school' that scams its students -- law schools are abstract social institutions, not concrete moral agents. When people say 'law school is a scam,' what that really means, at the level of actual moral responsibility, is that law professors are scamming their students."

The professor has gone on in subsequent posts to describe his law faculty colleagues as overpaid, and as inadequate teachers. "The typical professor teaches the same classes year after year. Not only that -- he uses the same materials year after year. I’m not going to bother to count -- this is law school after all, and we don’t do empirical research -- but I bet that more than half the cases I teach in my required first-year course were cases I first read as a 1L 25 years ago. After all I use the same casebook my professor used. I even repeat some of his better jokes (thanks Bill)," says one post.

And that was followed by another criticizing the gradual decline in teaching loads of professors at law schools (a trend that has been documented elsewhere), and arguing that students are paying quite a bit for minimal teaching time and effort. Of his fellow law professors, he writes: "They are like the most burnt out teachers at your high school, if you went, as I did, to a middling-quality public school. But with this difference: the most burnt-out teachers at your high school still had to show up for work for seven hours a day. Also, they didn't get paid $200,000 (or even quite a bit more) per year. And you didn't pay $50,000 a year for the benefit of their talents."

And LawProf says he's just getting started.

The author identifies himself only as "a tenured mid-career faculty member at a Tier One school." He agreed to reveal his identity to Inside Higher Ed, and his description is accurate. He teaches at a law school that doesn't make the "top 10" lists, but that is generally considered the best in its state and is well regarded nationally. His C.V. shows plenty of scholarship and professional involvement. And while "LawProf" (as he calls himself) is disdainful of the prestige hierarchy of American law schools, he said in the interview that it was important for the law school world to hear from someone "at a better law school," because so many law professors write off the current complaints from new graduates "as the concerns of third-tier law schools, which don't matter."

The reality, LawProf said, is that while students are top law schools fare much better, the issues are present everywhere. "Students are unable to get the kinds of jobs they want, and they are having to go for jobs they didn't envision before, and they are feeling ripped off," he said.

"A lot of people are going to get mad at me," especially if they ever figure out who he is, which he expects will happen, LawProf said. And while he has tenure, he said he believed there would be repercussions for speaking out as he is. "It's breaking a wall of silence," LawProf said. And he said that he believes he will be more frank by writing anonymously.

In terms of reforming legal education, LawProf said it could be much less expensive, which in turn would result in less of a need for students to borrow, and change the current dynamic in which new graduates face massive debts without good jobs.

A plan for change, he said, would be to ignore the rankings (which encourage the wrong kinds of behavior), to stop spending so much on "luxury" facilities for law schools "that have nothing to do with education," to cut the number of administrators, and to offer fewer legal clinics (which he said are expensive and hide the poor job law schools do of training people to be lawyers).

And in a reflection of how unpopular he would be with his colleagues if he went public, LawProf called for law professors to be paid much, much less. Law professors (along with those in fields such as medicine and business) typically earn much more than their faculty colleagues in other disciplines. LawProf said he earned about $170,000 last year -- nowhere near the top of the heap at his law school, but double what most tenured professors outside the law school earn at his institution.

The traditional argument made in defense of such salary levels is that law schools would lose their best talent to law firms. But LawProf said that was "a bunch of bullshit." He said that law schools regularly employ a limited number of top lawyers (at a fraction of their billable hour rates) to teach single courses, and could do more of this and thereby bring more real-world experience into law schools.

And as for the full-time academics, LawProf said that they enjoy benefits of not working in law firms: shorter hours, less pressure, the ability to pick their areas of interest -- all of which should make typical academic salaries appropriate. Law professors, he said, do things they like 95 percent of the time, and law firm lawyers do that 5 percent of the time. That is a choice of value, he said. "Why are we paying these academics twice as much as other academics?" he asked.

Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston who is president of the Association of American Law Schools (but who stressed that he was speaking for himself, not the organization), said that LawProf is welcome to return half of his salary if he is guilt-ridden.

Olivas said that "there is a small grain of truth in most of what he says," but that his portrayal of law professors is unfair and inaccurate. Olivas said that good law professors prepare for every meeting of every course, paying attention to changes in the law. He said that they routinely help not only current students, but alumni. And he said legal scholarship is valuable to academe and society. "It's unprincipled to walk into class unprepared," he said. "I would never do that. Most people would never do that."

The vision of law school presented by LawProf neglects the extent to which American legal education is seen as a model in the rest of the world, Olivas said. Models that are based on maximum efficiency in other countries lead to large classes, minimal professor-student contact, and no scholarship, he added, wondering whether LawProf would like such a set-up in the United States.

Olivas also criticized LawProf for writing anonymously. "To hide behind an anonymous blog is to create hearsay that doesn't even round up to gossip," he said. Making such criticisms in public, Olivas said, would create an opportunity for meaningful debate, including exploring whether LawProf's experiences at his law school are typical of the faculty members there, or of law professors in general.

LawProf said that the realities of legal education today require a "whistle-blowing approach" such as the one he is taking. Other professions -- such as medicine -- may be guilty of restricting entry and making training quite expensive, but they tend to produce solid careers for those who graduate from medical school. "The cartel of legal education is not good at all at protecting law graduates, but it's very good at protecting the economic privileges of legal academia," he said. The reason he has joined the "scam bloggers" is that "they have figured out that we have a cartel that screws them and the public."


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