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Cultural knowledge and personal responsibility

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Somebody — I think it may have been the most overrated philosopher of all time, J.S. Mill — said that truth goes through three stages. First it’s mocked as absurd. Then it’s declared to be against religion. Finally, it’s said to be what everyone has believed all along.

I think we’re getting to stage three in regard to the proposition that law school has turned out to be somewhere between a very risky proposition and a flat-out ripoff for the vast majority of people who are attending today, and who have graduated in recent years.

This statement, which as little as three years ago would have been treated as either “crazy” or at the least a gross exaggeration by almost everybody in legal academia, is rapidly heading toward the status of conventional wisdom. One sign of this is that a National Jurist poll of the most influential people in legal academia, which was conducted by surveying a group made up in large part of law school deans, has selected Brian Tamanaha as #1 on this list, with Bill Henderson as the first runner-up, should Brian for any reason not be able to fulfill his duties at some point during his reign. (Modesty forbids me from pointing out that I won Mr. Congeniality).

Think about that: law school deans — probably the single most status-quo regarding group within legal academia — selected somebody who wrote a book arguing that the current model of legal education in America simply doesn’t work any more, and is in need of radical reform, as the most influential person in the business.

In other words, the conventional wisdom about law school, both within higher education and in the culture at large, has been changing with lightening speed. This is important to remember when people start reflexively victim-blaming recent grads and even current law students for not being more reasonably prudent rational maximizers of their own utility when they signed up for this thing of ours.

Consider, for example, the class that will be graduating this spring. The class of 2013 applied to law school in the fall of 2009, which means that it is mostly made up of people who got serious about going to law school no later than 2008 or so, if not much earlier (it takes most people awhile to study for the LSAT, pull together letters of recommendation, etc.).

Think about what information was available to prospective law students five years ago about immediate outcomes for law graduates, let alone the long term career trajectories of aspiring lawyers. Compared to today, there were almost no warnings about the fact that, because of the rising cost of law degrees and long-term trends in the market for attorneys, the net present value of a legal education had been declining for at least two decades, and was likely to continue to do so. Bill Henderson made his very first public observations about the bimodal salary distribution around this time. (This Tamanaha post at Balkinization, which is barely two and a half years old, indicates implicitly how little these trends had been recognized outside the still very underground world of scamblogging).

All of which is to say the extent to which responsibility for acting on what has suddenly become the “obvious” truth that law school is a high risk enterprise can be imputed to law graduates and even current law students is very limited. Indeed the cultural lag time involved pushes me, at least, toward the conclusion that only people who enrolled in law school this year can be reasonably held responsible for having some realistic sense of what they are getting themselves into.

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