American Legal History and the Hessian Effect

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hessianIt is curious thing that, even as undergraduate liberal arts programs continue to take a beating, law schools designed to train professionals now offer more humanistic (sometimes called perspective) courses than ever. What may be even more curious is that the presence of these courses in the curriculum is justified on instrumental grounds. Courses in jurisprudence, legal history, and comparative law (as well as others taking their cue from the social sciences) provide, it is argued, a context for the understanding (and later exercise) of practical wisdom.  The Hessian effect — the sense that the law teacher is there simply to train practically-minded mercenaries, see Thomas Bergin, The Law Teacher: A Man Divided Against Himself, 54 Va. L. Rev. 637 (1968) — remains present in legal education, but the definition of the training of lawyers has broadened to encompass such courses as integral to one’s legal education.

Part of this transformation results from the greater employment of legal academics who hold joint degrees in law and other disciplines, many of whom had little experience in practice. Part was a reaction against dogged resistance to “big ideas” about law in mid-twentieth century legal education, and part, I think, is due to a hunger in students for something more from their education than technocratic training.  Continue reading “American Legal History and the Hessian Effect”

Does the ABA Do Good? (Part II)

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The ABA has been the official federal accrediting body of law schools since 1952, a task it undertook informally after the issuance of the Root Committee Report in 1921. A law school approved by the ABA can remain in business because its students are eligible for federally guaranteed loans and because every state’s licensing authority has made graduates of ABA-approved law schools eligible to take its bar exam. Thus, a law school wants to please the ABA inspection teams that visit every seven years (and more often if the school is new) for a determination of whether to re-approve the school.

Has the existence of the ABA as accrediting body aided legal education?  Before 1995, the answer was a qualified yes. The ABA demanded law schools invest in resources that aided students (for example, requiring more full-time faculty), and inculcated a professionalism in legal education that provided for enhanced (though flawed) training of lawyers. The system had its faults, particularly the ABA’s use of its monopoly approval power to 1) push for faculty pay increases, 2) make demands regarding size of libraries and secure tenure status for librarians, and 3) make excessive capital demands of new law schools. On the whole, though, as Robert Stevens concluded in an article on American legal education, the ABA deserved two cheers.  See Robert Stevens, Two Cheers for 1870: The American Law School, in Law in American History 405 (Donald Fleming & Bernard Bailyn eds. 1971).

This ABA’s understanding of its role and its actions regarding it authority has changed markedly since the entry of the consent decree in the antitrust matter filed by the DOJ against the ABA.  Continue reading “Does the ABA Do Good? (Part II)”

Does the ABA Do Good? (Part I)

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No. (This, however, is a polemic, and as such I am unfairly neglecting some of the fine work done by some ABA sections.) As a law student, I had an inchoate thought that the ABA could be a kind of strong mediating institution between the state and the individual that would make it beneficial to the public, not just a large lobbying organization protecting the business interests of lawyers. I had a woeful lack of knowledge of the quite sketchy history of the ABA. I thought the ABA could use its organizational heft to improve the quality of applicants to the profession, improve the ethical standards required of all lawyers, and advance the public profession of the law.

One issue of importance to the ABA during my formative years as a lawyer (and even now) was its role in the vetting process for federal court nominees. Having joined the legal profession in 1982, I was quite familiar with the burgeoning culture wars, including their cousin, the judicial appointment wars. I never thought much of the ABA’s efforts to control (or at least channel) judicial selection through its Committee on the Federal Judiciary, particularly after it couldn’t determine, based on its own “non-ideological” criteria, whether Robert Bork was highly qualified, qualified, or a hopeless disaster in the making. I don’t mind the ABA’s efforts to evaluate federal judicial nominees; what bothers me is that it claims to do so as an independent, neutral, unbiased expert.

But neither its history nor its tiresome efforts to wield an oddly refractive kind of political influence is what really bothers me. No, the ABA does harm because it can’t get it right on what should be its two most important areas of concern: legal ethics (this Part) and legal education (Part II).  Continue reading “Does the ABA Do Good? (Part I)”

The Puzzling Case of Summer Abroad Programs

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Once every decade or so, the ABA’s annual meeting is set in London. It appears to be a popular decision, and why not? It allows a lawyer to fly to Europe and deduct the cost as a business expense, making the vacation that surrounds the meeting just a little bit cheaper (and in a weak dollar era, that’s not a bad thing). The ABA justifies its decision as giving American lawyers a chance to better understand the roots of the American legal system by studying the English common-law system. So, lawyers visit the Inns of Court, maybe take in a lecture or panel discussion from English lawyers and judges, and even visit the courts. But does one really learn anything applicable to the practice of law (or even the theory of law) from this event? (I put aside for now the question whether one learns anything from any ABA annual meeting.) The ABA’s justification is both true and trite. The English legal system serves as a broad-based template for the American legal system (with some exceptions that followed civil law), but large differences began to emerge by the early nineteenth century, and a distinctly American legal system was in place by no later than the end of the nineteenth century. How the country that gave us trial by jury managed to eliminate it in civil matters is interesting but dated and of little concern to nearly all American lawyers. Further, and more importantly, the English and American legal systems remain but a shadow of their former common-law selves. We live not just in an age of statutes (as Yale Law Professor and now federal appeals court Judge Guido Calabresi noted), but in an age of regulations and ordinances, of written laws unending. No, the reason to go to London is because it is a taxpayer-financed boondoggle.

Like the ABA, law schools may have initially found the lure of European travel the reason for the development of summer abroad programs.  Continue reading “The Puzzling Case of Summer Abroad Programs”

What Should Be Done with Legal Education? (Part IV)

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One of the “hot topics” at the 2010 annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in New Orleans was the topic of “assessment.” The ABA has traditionally approved law schools based on inputs (LSAT/UGPA scores of enrolled students, student-faculty ratio, number of volumes in the library, etc.) rather than on outputs. This in part was a consequence of the already-existing output of the bar exam (though not for Wisconsin). Theoretically, if a school had a poor bar passage rate, it would surely end up going out of business. That hasn’t happened, anywhere. Law schools don’t go out of business; they simply shift to survival mode when necessary. The ABA several years ago added a Standard (these are the criteria used by the ABA in determining whether to approve or re-approve a law school, which permits the graduates of those law schools to take the bar exam in any state) requiring law schools to meet several criteria regarding first-time bar passage rates. However, those criteria were easily avoided. Additionally, the struggle of graduates of historically black law schools with the bar exam made the ABA leery of creating a Standard that might apply in a manner that discriminated in effect even though not in purpose. Now the ABA has a new idea: assessment of outputs other than the bar exam.

Assessment of what law graduates know and what they can do is a good thing. But if history is any judge, it likely will turn out to be bad for both law schools and law graduates.  Continue reading “What Should Be Done with Legal Education? (Part IV)”

What Should Be Done With Legal Education? (Part III)

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This post focuses solely on how some restructuring of law faculty may assist in improving legal education.  (Earlier posts in this series are here and here.)

Unlike many undergraduate institutions, law schools have not lessened their faculty costs by moving in the direction of increasing non-tenure-track faculty. While law schools have always hired judges and practitioners to teach classes in the law school curriculum (My law school, St. Mary’s, is lucky to have a current federal district judge teach Federal Courts to its evening division students, and employs a retired federal circuit court judge to teach several courses each year), law schools remain heavily dependent on full-time faculty to teach most of the curriculum. In the main, this division of labor has benefitted law students. It has forced law schools to take seriously the mission of teaching law. Law professors are not only expected to teach large introductory classes without teaching assistants to share the load, many positively relish the challenge. Students can take much from a faculty member who demonstrates both a mastery of the material and an ability to communicate that material, as well as an affinity for legal scholarship. A passion for both the theory and practice of law can infect students, though an ability to explain how students should learn to enjoy the drudgery of law may be even more important. One or more faculty members of the “Mr. Chips” type (ancient popular culture reference) are useful for any school, but schools do well with some lopsided faculty (that is, faculty who are strong teachers and weak scholars or vice-versa). 

The problem with law faculties today is one of stasis, resulting from a combination of early tenure, modest lateral movement, the end of mandatory retirement, and the pay structure, exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008.  Continue reading “What Should Be Done With Legal Education? (Part III)”

What Should Be Done With Legal Education? (Part II)

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This post argues that recent changes in legal education have harmed rather than helped most students and that legal education needs to change significantly, and predicts that no change will occur until it’s too late.

One significant change in law schools over the past twenty-five years is the bureaucratization of the institution. What were once fairly lean organizations have become bloated, and the increase in administrators is one cause of the greater-than-inflation increases in law school tuition. This increase in administrators, with the concomitant rise in tuition, has created a kind of chicken-and-egg problem.

The high cost of tuition has made many law schools leery of academic attrition (in part because if those former students don’t pay back their loans, the institution may find itself in trouble). You rarely see exclusion of one-third of the student body (I can think of just one school). But especially where bar exam passing rates have ranged considerably, because such rates can readily be compared, academic attrition has increased among a number of law schools in the past decade in order to pump up bar exam results.  One consequence has been the creation and rapid expansion of academic support programs for those students who are struggling. The theory behind such programs is sound. But though such programs can offer students tips on how to organize their study, and offer some study skills, I don’t think they can actually provide “academic” support in practice.  Continue reading “What Should Be Done With Legal Education? (Part II)”

What Should Be Done With Legal Education?

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The front-page, above-the-fold article in the latest issue of the National Law Journal asked whether a legal education makes economic sense these days. The well-publicized recent purge of partners and associates in large law firms, the paucity of jobs (noted in a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education) available to graduating law students, and the massive increase in student indebtedness have generated a flood of articles and Internet posts cautioning would-be law students against entering the profession. This post takes the view that legal education still makes long-term sense for many. A later follow-up post will argue that recent changes in legal education have harmed rather than helped most students, that legal education needs to change significantly, and that it won’t until it is too late.

A paper recently posted on SSRN entitled Momma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be . . . Lawyers by Vanderbilt University School of Law Professor Herwig Schlunk argues that, whether a law student attends a top-ten law school and does well, is a “solid performer,” or is an “also ran” who attends a third-tier law school, that student will have a negative return on investment. Whether Professor Schlunk’s assessment about opportunity cost (the salary foregone by attending three years of law school) is accurate (I think that a starting salary of a new college graduate today, combined with the insecurity of those positions, makes the opportunity cost lower than he assumes), I believe law school remains, for many, the right decision.  Continue reading “What Should Be Done With Legal Education?”

Top Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part II

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Scale_of_justiceThe first half of the Top Ten list was posted yesterday here.

6. The changing structure of law firms, including specialization.

Only a few law firms were “national” or “international” in any sense of the word in 1979. The most well known was Baker & McKenzie, the Chicago behemoth. If I recall correctly, Foley & Lardner had no office outside of Wisconsin (and maybe Milwaukee) in 1979. In 1985, ten Dallas law firms had 100 or more lawyers, but none was as large as the three largest Houston law firms. One of those Dallas firms was the Cleveland law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue (now Jones Day), which came to Dallas in 1981, and which housed 122 lawyers by 1985. Jones Day’s “principal” office is now considered Washington, D.C., according to the National Law Journal, and it has 2,492 attorneys. Large law firms must be national in order to compete effectively for large corporate business (there may be a few New York-based exceptions to this rule, but just a few). Baker & McKenzie remains the largest law firm in the National Law Journal’s NLJ 250 with 3,949 lawyers in 2009, but five firms are larger than 2,000 lawyers, even after a bloodletting in which over 5,200 lawyers at the 250 largest firms were let go beginning in late 2008. The smallest of these 250 firms has 164 lawyers, a number that creates substantial fixed costs.

Firms this large are no longer partnerships in theory or fact.  Continue reading “Top Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part II”

Top Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part I

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Scale_of_justiceI was asked by Michael O’Hear to serve as the January guest blogger (blawger?), and thank him for this opportunity. I teach courses in Constitutional Law, Evidence, Professional Responsibility, and American Legal History at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, where I began teaching in the Fall of 1987.  My website is at www.michaelariens.com. I started at Marquette Law School in the Fall of 1979.  Since I have little idea what might interest any audience, I decided to use the crutch of an-end-of-the-year (or in this case, beginning-of-the-year) Top Ten list. I’ve listed what I perceive as the ten most important changes in the American legal profession since I entered law school.

1. Increasing competition for business by firms engaged in the private practice of law.

No other change comes close to the impact created by the increased in competition for clients. Several of the other changes listed below are a direct or indirect result of the quest for business. Intensifying competition has altered the promotion-to-partner tournament played by associates; including a substantial lengthening of the years required to reach partnership; changed the calculation of both associate and partner pay (including the dreaded “eat what you kill” compensation method); led to changes in the organizational structure of law firms; increased the shady business of case runners in the personal injury field; and affected the rules of ethics, the mentoring system of recent law school graduates, and law school applications.

One reason why some newly-minted lawyers are paid $160,000 to work at a large law firm is because those lawyers will eventually earn the partners significant profits. It is also because those lawyers are unlikely to make partner at the firm where they start.  Continue reading “Top Ten Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979, Part I”