Apparently, Chuck Klosterman believes law deans without checking to see what they’re hiding.

Man, the New York Times is just full of people defending law schools these days. First we had Lawrence Mitchell, Dean of Case Western Law School, write an op-ed about why he is “proud” to be a law dean. I’m not sure if he’s proud to have written an op-ed that has been savaged by everybody, but there you go.

This weekend, the Times ran an Ethicist column by noted pop culturalist Chuck Klosterman about the “morality” of law schools enrolling students at hefty tuition prices when they know the job market is very challenging.

Klosterman defended law schools, though it’s not clear that he intended to. In fact, it’s not clear that Klosterman knows just how “unethical” law schools have become.

But hey, you don’t actually have to understand the challenges of legal employment to defend law school in the New York Times these days….

The question presented to Klosterman was directly about law schools: “Is it moral for schools like these to keep enrolling students and collecting tuition dollars knowing that their product is a risky (or outright bad) investment?”

But in his answer, note how easily Klosterman equates “law school” to “college.”

If your query were simply “Is all college tuition in America unreasonably expensive?” my answer might be different. But your particular question is performance-based; you want to know if it’s unethical for colleges whose students are less successful in the job market to demand the same unreasonable tuition as the ones whose graduates perform well. And it’s not unethical — it’s just fiscally unfortunate.

I think this conflation of college and law school is common for people who have been to one, but not the other. Heck, when I decided to go to law school, I kind of thought that I was signing up to go to “College II: This Time It Counts.” But that kind of casual connection misses a great big point: law school is a professional school. People go there to become professionals. People go to law school to get jobs.

A law school’s success in the job market is kind of the point. It’s not like college. People don’t go to law school to find themselves or become immersed in liberal arts. They don’t go to have long conversations about obscure texts. People go to law school, for the most part, with the focus on acquiring skills that can be applied to a job. If there is no job at the end of it, if the market is telling you that your skills are not economically desirable, then there has been a failure.

In fairness to Klosterman, his mistake is one that a lot of law school deans make. They’re academics, they think there’s some intrinsic value to thinking deep thoughts about concurrent jurisdiction. They think it’s a damn show, they don’t know it’s a damn fight.

But then Klosterman performs the cardinal sin of assuming benign motives absent any evidence of good faith. Instead of looking at the world as law school deans do, he invents a nice sounding fantasy about the law school business model:

Obviously, the best thing any law school could do for its reputation is graduate people who become successful. These schools are motivated to do so; if they continually fail at that goal, they will not attract the best applicants, and the failure will perpetuate itself. But their principal ethical responsibility is to educate law students to the best of that institution’s ability, which isn’t inherently tied to how easily those graduates become gainfully employed.

False. Almost every line in this paragraph is demonstrably false. Here, I’ll show you:

“Obviously, the best thing any law school could do for its reputation is graduate people who become successful.”

Actually, the best thing that a law school can do for its reputation is succeed in the U.S. News law school rankings. And those rankings obviously, painfully, have little to do with employment success of graduates. U.S. News is focused on inputs (GPA, LSAT score, money spent per student), not outcomes (jobs, jobs, jobs). Graduating people who become successful is an occasional externality of admitting people who already are.

“These schools are motivated to do so; if they continually fail at that goal, they will not attract the best applicants, and the failure will perpetuate itself.”

Again, the schools attract applicants based on U.S. News. We talk about it every year. It’s actually comical how little “continual failure” results in law schools being punished by potential applicants. The decrease in law school applications overall is best understood as applicants, as a whole, realizing the job crunch in the legal industry. It’s not a case of a few, low achieving schools being punished by a discerning market.

“But their principal ethical responsibility is to educate law students to the best of that institution’s ability, which isn’t inherently tied to how easily those graduates become gainfully employed.”

If that’s the “principal ethical responsibility,” then law schools are still failing. Unless Klosterman or anybody else wants to seriously argue with me that there is ANY POINT WHATSOEVER to the third year of law school. Between archaic ABA rules and the pressure to grab federally backed tuition dollars, educating law students is something that a lot of law schools leave to Bar/Bri. Seriously, we don’t even blink anymore when a law school orders remedial Bar/Bri prep to help students pass the bar… because the institution can’t figure out how to get the job done in three years.

If law schools were concerned about educating students, 1L year would remain the same, intensive study of the basics; 2L year would be a mix of clinical programs and some upper-level class time; and 3L year wouldn’t exist (or just be a six-month-long bar prep course).

And don’t even get me started on the gigantic rip off that constitutes pretty much all LL.M. programs for international students. Let’s just pretend Klosterman didn’t just sit there and try to tell me that law schools’ principal concern is educating people to the best of their ability. Law schools’ principal concern is making money, just like any other business.

Of course, Klosterman wants to paint this rosy and unfounded picture because that’s the only way he can absolve law schools of moral responsibility for engaging in the shell game of admitting more students than can possibly find jobs. I like Klosterman’s writing, and he’s friends with my favorite writer, Bill Simmons, so I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think the nicest way of looking at his argument is that on this point he is like Donny in the Big Lebowski who, like a child, has wandered into the middle of a movie and wants to know what’s going on. He says to the guy who asked the question:

Your argument also infers a somewhat sinister self-awareness from the schools themselves — it suggests that they know their graduates will be uncompetitive but pretend otherwise to coerce new students into overpayment.

But they do know. And the goal is to coerce new students into overpaying for a degree that, for many people, will not be worth what law schools are charging. Think about all these law schools that have been sued. Even though many of the suits have been thrown out, you don’t see any of these guys saying, “Our employment stats accurately reflect the likelihood of our graduates to attain gainful, rewarding employment at a price point that will allow them to pay off their law school loans.” Instead, they say they’ve complied with the reporting requirements of the American Bar Association. Nothing more. They’re not even pretending that they’re trying to give students the most accurate picture of the legal employment market before they entice students to come to law school.

And that is sinister.

So Sue Me [The Ethicist / New York Times]

Earlier: Law Dean Takes to the New York Times Op-Ed Page to Blame Media for Declining Law School Applications
Students and Recent Graduates Speak Out About Dean Mitchell’s Defense of Law School


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