Law Schools, Placement, Ethics

Wednesday’s editorial by Case Western Dean Lawrence Mitchell in the New York Times has generated heated negative commentary.  TaxProf Blog collects much of it here  Boyd Law School Interim Dean Nancy Rappaport’s response here was one of the milder and more thoughtful.

Less noticed was the Ethicist’s answer to a law student’s question in Friday’s edition of the Times:

The law student asked whether schools that charge high tuition, but place less than half of their recent graduates in long-term, full-time, legal positions act immorally.

The Ethicist’s answer was “it’s not unethical — just fiscally unfortunate” on the ground that the school’s “principal ethical responsibility is to educate law students to the best of that institution’s ability, which isn’t inherently tied to how easily those graduates become gainfully employed. That responsibility is mostly yours.”

His answer raises at least three important issues:

1. The Caveat.   The Ethicist assumed that institutions do not “know their graduates will be uncompetitive but pretend otherwise to coerce new students into overpayment.”    To say he avoided the “sixty-four thousand dollar question” isn’t quite accurate.* But to the extent law schools fudge, hide, or downplay their true employment numbers for graduates — and each of these has been done by some schools — his conclusion does not hold.  More broadly,   faculty have an obligation to educate themselves about the job market and changes in the structure of the legal profession and be willing to think about implications for their institutions.

2. Educate Law Students to the Best of the Institution’s Ability.  For readers of this blog, this issue is core.  How many US law schools can honestly claim that they are educating  law students to the best of their ability?  As individuals, many law teachers care about teaching and work hard at it. Few institutions have done the hard work of institutional transformation.  We cannot answer that question “yes” unless we are willing to:  Work as members of a team, not merely as individuals.  Focus on the curriculum as a whole and how it can best serve our students, not merely on what we’ve always done, or what interests us personally.

To serve our students we must think in broad terms about what the Carnegie report dubbed the Apprenticeship of Identity and Purpose and give our students the experiences that will help them identify their gifts and the ways to use them that will feed their souls.  We must also acknowledge that our job is to develop skills.  We necessarily impart information, and should do that effectively.  But for most students that information is only important if they can use it to engage in ethical problem solving.  Knowing how to regurgitate information on an exam is not enough.

3. The Student’s Responsibility.  Students need to recognize — and individual faculty and institutions must help them do so — that law schools cannot hand them jobs on the proverbial silver platter.  Guidance we can provide. But it’s the student’s job hunt, interview, and, ultimately, life.

* In present day dollars three years of law school tuition typically exceeds $64,000.  On the other hand the quiz show of that name ran from 1955-1958 and the on-line inflation calculator tells me $64,000 in 1955 is worth $552,398.81.  Earlier this year Forbes claimed that the total cost of law school, including opportunity costs, is typically about $285,000, or, for those with high debt, just over $300,000, and judged it still a good investment.

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