A law professor’s reaction to the post-graduate employment market.

You learn a lot about people and institutions when they are desperate. You learn a lot about people by the way they respond to adversity. You learn a lot about people when they are backed into a corner, staring into an abyss, as the walls are crumbling around them. Some people rise to the occasion: England during the blitz, Ali in the jungle, that one time I needed to do a shot at the Cancun airport to complete my “100 drinks during Spring Break” pledge.

When faced with real adversity, most people, most of the time, soil themselves and end up a bloviating mess of hypocrisy and protectionism: McCain picking Palin, The French, me begging for a ‘C’ in French even though my wife did all my homework.

I think the vanguard of the American legal academy has reached that sad, embarrassing stage where they are willing to say anything, to anybody, in a desperate attempt to prop up the notion that law school is a good idea. Today we’ve got video of a guy, an associate dean, “defending” the current system of legal education with a full assault on reason.

And I think it’s sad. A people should know when they’re beaten. Instead of fighting for an old way that hurts students, you just wish people like this could seize this opportunity to talk about a new system that isn’t based on taking advantage of people. Instead, it’s just another law professor who is still hoping that prospective law students are “too stupid” to understand math and logic…

The interview with Stephen M. Sheppard, associate dean of the law school at the University of Arkansas — Fayetteville, is on Bloomberg Law. You can see it below:

Sheppard sounds professorial and his measured manner of speaking gives him an air of credibility. To hear the intellectual dishonesty in his arguments, you actually have to listen closely to what he’s saying.

He starts off by arguing that law schools are not producing more graduates than ever before, even as he concedes that law schools are in fact producing more graduates than ever before in absolute numbers. But, because there are more “people” in the United States and a higher percentage of those people are going to college, he concludes that law schools are producing a lower percentage of graduates, relative to the number of people involved in higher education.

That’s true, but also utterly meaningless. Who cares if there are fewer law grads per English majors per capita? If there aren’t more LAW JOBS per law grad, then we have an oversupply problem. This is a classic tactic by law professors, to use a statistic that has nothing to do with what anybody is talking about as if it proves something.

Speaking of jobs, Shepppard says that “the idea that we must have jobs for our students is not only a mistake, it’s a dangerous mistake.” He then goes into a two-pronged patter that talks about how law grads can hang out their own shingles and thus start their own jobs, and how holding law schools accountable for actually employing their graduates will lead to a market where only Biglaw firms and rich defense firms can hire lawyers, leading to poor legal services for low-income citizens.

That argument completely blows past the part where lawyers can’t make a living (or pay their debts) hanging out their own shingles and servicing low-income clients. But it also blames the victim, the student who can’t find a job, while absolving the law school of responsibility for any kind of promises or representations made about the strength of the legal employment market. Most people who go to law school are not small businessmen and don’t want to be small businessmen. If the value of law school is now predicated on graduates having the skills to start their own businesses, then MAYBE LAW SCHOOLS SHOULD TEACH THAT instead of “international and environmental law,” which are listed as some of professor Sheppard’s specialties.

(Side note: the gall of the “faculty advisor to the International Law Society” at the University of freaking Arkansas telling kids to hang out a shingle is just beyond me. Are there lots of international law clients hanging around Fayetteville just waiting to be snapped up by a recent grad with the gumption to serve them? Why don’t you do it and report back on your findings?)

High tuition is the other big reason that students do not have the career flexibility that Sheppard blithely ascribes to them, but Sheppard isn’t much concerned with that. “I reject the premise that American law students are too stupid to know the cost of their degree,” he says. Sheppard is of course free to “reject” whatever he wants. I reject the premise that American law professors are too stupid to know that the cost of tuition is unreasonably high.

Sheppard does have a nice song and dance about how IBR makes law school a “less dangerous” investment than when he went to school. He seems unwilling to grasp that IBR still means that the graduate is dealing with “financial hardship” and that all it’s doing is shifting the burden of ridiculous law school tuition from the student onto the taxpayers. I’m sure a law professor has no problem with an education that has so outstripped its value that taxpayers are expected to make up the difference between its cost and its return, but back here on Earth it’s entirely reasonable to expect that the value of something will have some rational relationship to what people are allowed to charge for it.

All of these arguments represent the kind of “I’m just going to say a bunch of things and hope people don’t think too critically about them” behavior that has come to define the defenders of the current system of legal education. But at the end of this interview, Sheppard tells a story that I think inadvertently exposes the real devious intent behind these arguments.

Sheppard says that he was at a restaurant and he was being served by one of his former college students. He asked her why she was waiting tables and not in school, and she said that it was because her pre-law advisor told her “there are no jobs.” Sheppard asked if her pre-law advisor had told her that the University of Arkansas had a 96% employment rate. He had not. Sheppard wraps up this story as an example of how the criticism of the legal employment market is hurting students who could go to law school but don’t because they’re just hearing “the culture of complaint.”

Now… the University of Arkansas Law School at Fayetteville does not have anything approaching a “96% employment rate” by any reasonable definition of the term. Law School Transparency puts the school’s “full-time, J.D. required” employment score at 64 percent. For Sheppard to fix his mouth to say 96 percent, he has to be including school-funded positions, temporary positions, non-J.D. positions, and yes, even probably kids who graduate from law school and then have to take jobs as waitresses. The argument that simply going to law school somehow saves you from having to wait tables is a fallacy — a “dangerous mistake,” if you will. We just talked about a study that shows some undergraduate programs at the University of Arkansas outperform the law school when it comes to salary. Our inbox is littered with stories of people who go to law school, graduate unemployed, and would kill for a waitressing job.

What law school does buy you is three years of making no money while racking up debt. This girl could be in the exact same job, waiting tables, after going to law school, only with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and three extra years on her odometer. And if that happened to this girl, would Sheppard or the University of Arkansas be accountable to her? OF COURSE NOT. Sheppard just told you, it’s not the school’s responsibility to find people jobs, and if it all goes bad, students are just supposed to get on IBR and let the taxpayers pay the tab.

These are not arguments Sheppard makes in a vacuum, these are arguments law schools across the country are making to induce real people into making real decisions with only a meager understanding of the facts. “Law schools aren’t producing too many lawyers.” “A law degree means you can always hang out a shingle.” “Tuition repayment means somebody else will pay for your mistakes.” “We have a 96 percent employment rate.” “Wouldn’t you rather be a lawyer than a waitress?” Instead of trying to fix the problem, these arguments are designed to get just one more student to fall for the story. It’s shameless.

And it’s desperate. More and more, we are seeing that people aren’t buying this stuff. I hope Sheppard gave that girl a really nice tip, because his advice was predatory.


comments sponsored by

59 comments (hidden for your protection) Show all comments