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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Is Dean Lawrence Mitchell right about law schools?

In a New York Times op-ed piece (here), Dean Lawrence Mitchell of Case Western Reserve makes the case that law school is a good investment.  I know that a lot of my colleague deans loved the op-ed, but I found myself very uneasy while (and after) reading it.  And my reasons for my unease are precisely why what I'm about to say will alienate many fellow law deans.*

Sure, law school can give people a great education, even if law graduates find themselves working in non-law jobs.  Any good graduate program that helps students develop their analytical, research, and communication skills will be a plus for all sorts of jobs.

But most legal education is expensive, and students who are borrowing thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable debt need to think clearly about whether they'll be able to pay off that debt upon graduation.  I'm guessing that most law students are not particularly comforted by the idea that they'll find jobs eventually, over a 40-50 year span.  Therefore, Dean Mitchell's suggestion that "[t]he focus on first jobs is misplaced[; because we] educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years" fails to consider the very real fear that many recent graduates have about making ends meet when their loans first kick in.

What this op-ed represents, at least to me, is confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is a powerful phenomenon.  For those who want to suggest that law school is always a good idea, they can focus on the fact that many law graduates do get good (or at least decent) jobs and that applications to law school haven't dried up yet.  On the other hand, applications to law school have been dropping.  Bad job market + non-dischargeable debt = decline in applications.  That's no coincidence.  Potential law students are starting to do some basic arithmetic.  If you want to work against the natural confirmation bias that law deans probably have, see, e.g., here and here.

We can spend a lot of time congratulating each other on the idea that law school can produce well-educated people, or we could pay attention to some very disturbing trends.  Those trends include the bimodal distribution of law salaries, the changes in law firm economics (see here, here, and here, for starters), and--frankly--the changes in law school economics.  I didn't see Dean Mitchell's op-ed address those issues, but to be fair, an op-ed is likely not the right forum in which to address them.

I believe that legal education can be a wonderful thing, and I believe that law is an honorable profession.  I'm proud of the legal education that Boyd Law provides to its students, of the legal research that our faculty does, and of the service we provide to our community.  But just as the phrase "thinking like a lawyer" grates on my nerves because it implies that no other profession teaches top-notch analytical skills, the idea that legal education is important because it's the best way of teaching how to reason and communicate is dangerously naive.

That's why you won't see me posting Dean Mitchell's op-ed on our law school's website.  Maybe I can now add "and persona non grata" to my Interim Dean title.

* Now that I'm Interim Dean, I need to mention that these views are mine alone, and not those of the law school or of UNLV (even though you probably already figured that out).

UPDATE (11/30/12):  For a more fun way of saying the same thing, see LawProfBlog's post (here).

UPDATE (12/2/12):  And for a way more erudite way of saying it, see The Faculty Lounge's post (here).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bad writing doesn't just make you look dumb.

It makes you look "unteachable."  In Michael Skapinker's opinion piece ("If you want a job, learn your it’s and its") in this morning's Financial Times (here), he points out that adults who don't know the difference between "it's" and "its" are demonstrating that they have a learning curve that's too long.  Here's my favorite quote from the article (and don't forget that this opinion piece is from a non-US paper):
Why, then, does mixing up “it’s” and “its” matter when it rarely causes confusion? Because, as Mr[.] Wiens says, if you haven’t learnt the difference by now, what else haven’t you learnt?
So true.  I cringe when people I know can't tell the difference between "it's" and "its", or "your" and "you're", or "there" and "their."  Maybe there's a learning style problem--I hope so, because otherwise I'm looking at people who don't care enough to learn a set of rules that pre-teens are taught.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Your writing matters. Learn the rules of grammar.

Today's article in the Wall Street Journal, "This Embarrasses You and I [sic]" (here), is a perfect illustration of why good writing is so important.  Bad writing (poor grammar, poor spelling, poor analysis, verbosity) makes you look dumb. 

In today's job market, where there are far too many lawyers trying to get (or keep) far too few positions, you need to remember the three things good lawyers do:

1.  They're good at analyzing problems and coming up with viable solutions.
2.  They communicate well.
3.  They're ethical.

That's what you need to be a good--maybe eventually great--lawyer.  Fancy law degrees are great, but they'll only get you in the door.  Your own performance is what keeps you there.

Here's a comparison for you to remember:  I want my surgeon to be able to communicate well with me.  Surgeons cut.  They think about cutting; they cut; they think about the cuts they've done.  Writing isn't a job requirement, per se, but I sure want what my surgeon writes in my medical files to be accurate and understandable.  If my surgeon didn't know the basic rules of grammar, I'd start obsessing about what other gaps he had in his education.  And lawyers actually are supposed to write well, so it's even more important for you to prove that you know the writing rules.

To steal a line (or to do a jazz riff on it--I couldn't find the exact quote) from Oprah:  be your best self.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A must-read for law students.

My buddy Alan Childress just told me that his press has re-published The Bramble Bush, written by Karl Llewellyn and with a new intro and notes by Stewart Macaulay.  This book is a must-read.  You can get it here.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Undue hardship and student loans.

Recently, Lee Pacchia of Bloomberg Law and I talked about how bad the student debt load problem is getting (here). 

Although the issue of getting an "undue hardship" discharge of a student loan is not quite as bad as I glibly said in the podcast, it's still pretty dire.  Before you borrow, pay attention to whether you'll be able to pay off those loans.  If you're not likely to (a) pass the bar and (b) get a job that will help you eat and pay rent/mortgage while you're paying off the loans, don't go to law school until you've saved up enough money for tuition and expenses.  Period.

There are some great articles out there that will walk you through just how difficult it is to discharge your loans.  See here, here (the student note on undue hardship), here, and here, for starters.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

More on the issue of reporting jobs.

Bernie Burk has compiled information on how many of the most well-regarded law schools are hiring their own graduates to make sure that they have jobs.  See the post at The Faculty Lounge here; hat tip to TaxProf Blog.  And, speaking of TaxProf Blog, it points out that some potential law students are backing away from considering law as a viable career option.  See Decline in LSAT Test-Takers Portends 'Death Spiral' for Low-Ranked Law Schools here.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Dear Law Review Editors:

Thank you very much for (1) soliciting or (2) accepting my article.  I'm happy to publish it in your journal.

I truly appreciate the hard work that you did in cite-checking and editing my article.  You cleaned up some problems and made it better. 

One complaint, though:  you need to remember that my article will be published under my name, not yours.  Therefore, I will reject all of your attempts to "clean up" my writing by replacing my informal style with your more formal one.

I'm sorry if law school gave you the impression that you must use stuffy writing in order to write well.  That's incorrect.  The best contracts are written with straightforward language.  The best briefs are those with simple, declarative sentences and active voice.

I know that some of my law professor colleagues write more formally than I do, and there's nothing wrong with the way that they write.  That's their choice, and I respect it.  But I also respect the choice of those who write less formally, and I include myself in the latter group.

When you're starting out, you find your own voice first by imitating the voice of more senior lawyers and then, slowly, figuring out your most authentic way of communicating.  Once you have your own authentic voice, treasure it.  Being true to yourself will take you far in life.

Of course, in order to break the rules of formal writing, you must know them.  So if you're weak on rules of grammar or punctuation, learn them.  Then you can decide when and how to break (some of) them.

Writing is like jazz.  Jazz is great because it knows the rules of classical music and chooses when and where to break those rules.

Find your jazz voice.  I have mine.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Bloomberg Law & David Segal on legal education.

(Disclaimer:  I'm working on some projects with Bloomberg Law, so I'm not the world's most impartial commenter.)

I watched Lee Pacchia's interview with David Segal (here), and I have a few preliminary thoughts:
  1. What I liked best:  the podcast illustrates one basic truth.  No one in a bubble ever thinks he's in a bubble.
  2. The distortion effect of the USNWR rankings isn't just observed by seeing how law schools reorder their priorities.  It's also seen when law schools fudge the USNWR numbers, which is precisely the wrong lesson to send to budding lawyers.
  3. If the law schools were doing a creditable job of disclosing their employment and bar passage stats, then I'd feel less bad about students going to places that have high tuition and low employment and bar passage rates.  I don't believe in coddling people who are thinking of becoming lawyers.  I do, however, believe that people need to have accurate and timely information in hand before they can make informed decisions. 
  4. The ABA Standards actually do have a lot to do with what freedom schools have to play with expenses. 
  5. After I stopped laughing at Mr. Segal's idea that someone really inexperienced could do a decent job on a consumer bankruptcy case, I decided that his example proved the problem.  Law is a complicated field.  If we don't want to put out mere scriveners, then we have to make sure that law graduates have a full range of skills that give them the ability to provide competent advice to clients.  We may disagree on what those skills are (but see our forthcoming book, Law Firm Job Survival Manual, which will give some good basic advice on necessary skills), but we can't just give people two years of black-letter law and assume that they'll be able to advise clients.
  6. I do believe that we should have teeth in whatever standards we apply.  If no school loses accreditation, even after several warnings, then the standards aren't that useful.
  7. Part of the problem is that we're assuming that all law schools have, or should have, the same mission, so we're not thinking hard enough about different models of legal education.
I'm about to accept an offer to publish one of my latest essays (Changing the Modal Law School:  Rethinking U.S. Legal Education in (Most) Schools), and I'll eventually put the final version up on SSRN once the piece is published.  The short version of my essay says that there really are three basic types of law schools.  A very few of them provide unparalleled networking opportunities for their faculty and alumni; a very few of them create the risk that their graduates won't be able to become lawyers (and pay back those nondischargeable loans); and most of them (the "modal" schools) provide quite a nice legal education.  Pretending that these three types of schools are at all alike is what gets us into trouble.

All in all, though, the Bloomberg Law interview with David Segal is worth watching.