Any critique of the set of powerful social institutions that work together to create contemporary American legal education must be as it were political all the way down. (Few things annoy me as much as the conceit trafficked in by “reasonable” centrist types that there are obvious non-ideological solutions to serious social problems, which invariably involve adopting the reasonable centrist’s obviously reasonable views. You can find this conceit in pretty much any Tom Friedman NYT column, and in many a law school classroom, textbook, and law review article that discusses “policy,” so-called).
It’s true that at present legal education in America is so screwed up that it’s possible and indeed necessary to critique it from literally any coherent ideological position. Libertarians should despise the market distortions produced by its cartel structure and its phony employment stats, cultural conservatives ought to be appalled by the nihilistic tendencies of its standard jurisprudence, i.e., law somehow creates moral obligations although nobody can say why, mild Obama-style liberals should be discomfited by how terribly expensive the whole thing has gotten, and actual leftists, assuming such people even exist any more within the American legal academy in practice rather than in “theory,” ought to hate just about everything about the entire enterprise, given that at present it’s a practically perfect machine for replicating and reinforcing class privilege in its most invidious forms.
I started looking into this business in a systematic way about a year ago, and over that span I’ve developed sympathy for all these critiques: or perhaps more accurately potential critiques, since in many ways the most striking feature of the legal academy at present is the absence of genuine critical perspectives of any kind. My sense — and I sincerely hope I’m mistaken — is that the whole thing has gotten so comfortably numb that it’s almost impossible to get people to pay any attention to the extent to which in legal academia is in a state that’s summarized with a certain piquant cogency by this gentleman’s observation.
Anyway, I find this lack of engagement most aggravating in regard to those of my colleagues who consider themselves in any way liberal or even left. (I have a lot more respect for the Ayn Rand types: at least they don’t pretend to care). If the continuing indifference of law school administrations and faculties to the increasingly scandalous disjunction between the cost and value of legal education demonstrates anything, I suppose, its that class interest trumps putative ideological commitment just about every time. This isn’t exactly something that qualifies as an original or interesting observation, but for some reason I still find the fact itself annoying as heck.
I suppose I’d like some sort of acknowledgement on the part of these sorts of people — people who “care” about social injustice — that every time we vote to buy ourselves more goodies we’re voting to raise tuition on that ever-growing proportion of our students who can’t really afford to pay what we’re charging them for what we’re selling them. Maybe, just maybe, we should stop doing that — or at least we should, under present circumstances, figure out a way to buy ourselves fun new toys (usually described as “improving the quality of what is already the best legal education available anywhere in the world”) without charging more than we already charge for our unspeakably valuable services.
Really, why shouldn’t every law school in the country at a minimum freeze tuition right now? (Actually law school tuition should be cut drastically but I’m trying to be realistic here). Can we at least discuss that option before hiring six more people and opening two new centers, and building a new this and that chock full of environmentally conscious “green” design features? And before you get to that, yes I realize law school faculties, and even law school deans, don’t set tuition themselves in some direct non-problematic fashion. There are a bunch of central administrators to deal with as well. And a serious collective action problem. And the extent to which the cost of education is a Veblen good. And lots of other problems too. Guess what — politics is hard! And in the end this is all about politics, not about the centrist’s complacent vision of “reasonable people pursuing reasonable purposes reasonably.”
c/p at ITLSS