What do you do with the dean of an unranked, fourth-tier law school, who gets made fun of in national newspapers for his enormous salary, tries to fire 35 to 40 percent of his faculty, and even makes taking a 25 percent pay cut look disingenuous and self-serving?

Well, if you are the American Bar Association, you give him an award. And not a sarcastic one like the one I suggested in the headline. I should give New England Law | Boston law dean John F. O’Brien an award for “Most Effective Troll Of His Own Students.” But the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is giving him a real award: the 2014 Robert J. Kutak Award. The award is given annually “to an individual who has contributed significantly toward increased cooperation among legal education, the practicing bar, and the judiciary.”

You know you are dealing with a cartel when it is so tone deaf that it starts giving awards to the members who seem to do the best job of exploiting non-members. Didn’t anybody tell them that handing out a “Pimp of the Year” award is supposed to be a joke?

John F. O’Brien garnered national headlines for pulling in an obscene $867,000 a year while luring kids to his bottom-of-the-barrel law school for $40,904 a year. Those aren’t 2005, salad-days figures. This man was doing this in 2013, LONG AFTER the market collapsed.

Then, he tried to bully faculty by cutting positions and offering buyouts. Only after initial reports surfaced did he agree to cut his own bloated salary by 25 percent. That sounds like a lot until you realize that O’Brien is still making $650,000 a year. He’s still making more than almost any other law dean for whom we have public records. We’ve previously guesstimated, in looking at UVA Law faculty salaries, that $450,000 seems to be the going rate for deans at top-14 schools. Even if you give a bump for people at private institutions instead of public, O’Brien’s now-reduced salary to run a school that can’t even get ranked by U.S. News is freaking outrageous.

O’Brien might be a nice guy who saves puppies in his spare time. I’d bet money that he has many friends and supporters and that he’s damned charismatic, because you don’t get into a position where you are shockingly overpaid without the pitchforks coming out unless you are a charming dude. But let’s look at this on an institutional rather than personal level: O’Brien’s salary represents everything that is WRONG with the economics of legal education. It’s an old, established man profiting off of the false hopes and bad decisions of the young. His salary is a vampiric redistribution of wealth from those who don’t know any better to those who should, with the federal government acting as the middle man.

And the ABA is giving him an award. The ABA is honoring him. Captain Obvious would do a better job handing out ABA awards than whoever is doing it now.

You know who I kind of feel bad for? Other law deans. I’m serious, there are over 200 of them, and not all of them are like this. Again, for all I know John F. O’Brien isn’t even “like this.” He might not be a cartoonish villain who gets his clothes washed in the tears of students who have graduated from his school. He might have many fans among New England Law’s faculty, alumni, and students. So O’Brien could just be, like… a locust. The noble locust isn’t out to get you, it’s just flying around, eating what it can, oblivious to the destruction it and all of its friends can cause while going about the day-to-day task of fulfilling its biological imperative. Would you turn down $650,000 if you could get your mandibles on it? That’s the nicest thing I can say about O’Brien: maybe he’s a locust. Or, you know, LeBron James.

But there are other, sentient law deans who are more proactively trying to address the problems caused by their species. Even if they are not selfless, there are many who can see the danger of eating all the crops without replanting seeds. But when the ABA picks a guy like O’Brien to honor, it makes all of them look bad. It makes them look like they’re all part of one giant swarm that is more concerned with its own survival than the future of legal education.

Maybe that’s the counter-narrative awards show that I should be running: “Law School Administrators Who Don’t Suck As Much As The ABA Would Have You Believe.” I doubt that anybody would show up to get their statuette; I’m envisioning a man giving a crying woman wearing a cap and gown a lollipop. But you’ve got to start somewhere. If you are not part of the solution, you might as well be a part of the ABA.

John F. O’Brien is 2014 Kutak Award Recipient [American Bar Association]


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