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October 2012

U.S. Law Schools as Indentured Servant Agencies

I've been watching from the sidelines the atmosphere of crisis overtaking American legal education in the past few years. The financial crisis hit U.S. legal employment extremely hard, vaporizing thousands of high-end jobs (many of which probably won't come back) and reducing the amount of money middle-class Americans had to spend on legal services. The U.S. does not have a sophisticated system of consumer legal insurance, so most people have to pay for legal services out of pocket. This has decimated the job prospects of the people graduating from any but the most elite law schools.

At precisely the same time, law schools -- from the elite to the for-profit bottom feeders -- have been drastically increasing their tuition fees in lockstep by something like 10-15% per year, meaning that many have literally doubled their tuition fees in the past 15 years or so. (I was lucky enough to go to law school back when it was a serious chunk of change, but not ludicrously, astronomically, ruinously expensive). Now, the average law student in the US can expect to incur total expenses (not just tuition) of something like $150,000 to $180,000 for a three-year law degree.

Paul Campos, the most readable critic of American legal education, explains what's driving this slow-motion train wreck:

An interesting statistic from his blog, Inside the Law School Scam:

Harvard Law School annual tuition IN 2011 DOLLARS

 1971: $12,500

1981:  $15,600

1991:  $26,000
2001:  $35,200
2011:  $47,600

Campos was also recently interviewed by Megan McArdle:

Megan: Do you have a sense of how that happens? The legend at business school--from which I graduated in 2001 with high five figure debt--was that the universities were using their professional schools as cash cows to subsidize the rest of the university.

But perhaps the faculty is being paid lots and lots? . . . she said, wryly.

Paul: Faculty salaries have doubled in real terms over the past 30 years. Administrative salaries have grown by much more, and the sheer number of administrative positions has exploded. Facilities are much nicer (this is known as the amenities race), and at law schools faculty-to-student ratios are much lower because of the pursuit of rankings. It's just a crazy business model, all of which is enabled by no underwriting standards for student loans.

Megan: Presumably because they're not bankruptable.

Paul: Yes, and because the cost is borne by graduates (who are prone to cognitive errors, ie optimism and confirmation bias) and by taxpayers, who are a diffuse group. The benefits, on the other hand, are reaped by a very discrete group -- law schools in particular and universities in general. It's Poli Sci and Econ 101 respectively really.


Intercultural Blind Spot: Glenn Beck's German Fans

Nqny1s

This is a post about an intercultural blind spot. An IBS exists whenever people who are interested in another culture -- but not extremely well-versed in it -- develop a distorted view of the other culture based on the lack of contextual knowledge (and the hubris not to recognize that lack). This can take many forms:

  • You take the spokesman from another culture seriously because (1) you are unable to detect the tells that alert a homegrown listener to the fact that this person is stupid or nuts; and/or (2) you are unaware of that person's history which shows them to be nuts even though what you heard sounded fairly reasonable.
  • You assume that one of the spokesmen for the other culture whose work is easily accessible because he speaks your language 'represents' the other culture as a whole, rather than just a tiny, unrepresentative fraction of it (example for English-speakers: Peter Schneider).
  • You take a spokesman from the other culture too seriously because he or she is saying what you want to hear and/or confirming reassuring stereotypes (example for German speakers: Michael Moore).
  • You assume the spokesman from the other culture must be as popular and influential at home as he is in your country.

Doing some unrelated research, I came across the website Politically Incorrect, which subtitles itself as: 'News against the Mainstream - Pro-American - Pro-Israeli - Against the Islamization of Europe - For the Constitution and Human Rights'. It's a curious mixture -- some of the posts are the sort of heavy-handed sarcasm and name-calling you see on the more tiresomely ranty kinds of political websites. Other posts make halfway-defensible points, and yet others take fairly well-aimed potshots at the indubitably politically-correct German state-run media.

Just when I was tempted to think some of it might be worth taking seriously, though, I ran across this entry (my translation):

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, a document called 'The Project' was discovered during a raid in Switzerland. The information, which has been kept secret by the US Administration, reveal the largest terrorism-financing scheme in US history. This documentary film relentlessly uncovers how the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the US Administration in an attempt to destroy the West from inside.

The film will be shown on Glenn Beck's The Blaze...

Whoa, wait a minute -- Glenn Beck? Katy, bar the door! For those of you lucky enough not to know who he is, Glenn Beck is a tear-prone, soddenly über-patriotic, half-educated conspiracy monger (and former cocaine user and radio shock jock) who had a batshit-crazy show on Fox News in the United States, before even Fox News dumped him. After Fox fired him, he dropped off the radar screen, and all sane Americans breathed a sigh of relief -- except for the late-night comedians, who mourned the passing of the most ludicrously sinister and sinisterly ludicrous media figure since Father Coughlin. He now runs his own media empire, spinning out inane tales for the tinfoil-hat brigade.

Host nation, allow me to proclaim: Glenn Beck is a 24-carat, no-holds barred moron. It's hard to think of a German who occupies an analogous space in the cultural landscape, but perhaps Horst Mahler (g) comes closest, even though Horst Mahler is a million times smarter (and more malevolent) than Glenn Beck. Nevertheless, you get the point. If I were to mention to a German friend: 'You know, I was reading an article by Horst Mahler the other day, and he made some really good points!' there would be a spit-take and howls of laughter. That is also what you will get for taking Glenn Beck seriously.


Extra: The Berlin Boys' Neoliberal Diktats are Crushing Spain!

The New York Times reports on the disaster that is overtaking Spain:

[Eating garbage is] becoming increasingly commonplace here, with an unemployment rate over 50 percent among young people and more and more households having adults without jobs. So pervasive is the problem of scavenging that one Spanish city has resorted to installing locks on supermarket trash bins as a public health precaution.

A report this year by a Catholic charity, Caritas, said that it had fed nearly one million hungry Spaniards in 2010, more than twice as many as in 2007. That number rose again in 2011 by 65,000.

As Spain tries desperately to meet its budget targets, it has been forced to embark on the same path as Greece, introducing one austerity measure after another, cutting jobs, salaries, pensions and benefits, even as the economy continues to shrink.

Most recently, the government raised the value-added tax three percentage points, to 21 percent, on most goods, and two percentage points on many food items, making life just that much harder for those on the edge. Little relief is in sight as the country’s regional governments, facing their own budget crisis, are chipping away at a range of previously free services, including school lunches for low-income families.

For a growing number, the food in garbage bins helps make ends meet.

Not to worry, though -- the Spanish government is coming to the rescue with even more austerity:

Recession-hit Spaniards will this week be told to swallow yet more austerity as the government prepares a fresh round of reforms and another budget filled with spending cuts and tax increases that will allow it to seek a bailout from eurozone partners.

Pension freezes are also expected to form part of a raft measures to prepare the way for the European Central Bank (ECB) to give Spain support to control borrowing costs that will eat up a large chunk of next year's budget.

The budget is to be announced on Thursday, alongside the reform programme. Neither seemed likely to contain measures to immediately ease Spain's chronic 25% unemployment, which some analysts expect will rise to 26.5% next year.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: If it were the United States or the IMF or the World Bank imposing these policies on Spain, the German press would be aflame with proudly one-sided articles like this one (g) from 1983 (the neoliberal policies imposed by the 'Chicago Boys' on Chile have led to ruin and misery) or this one (g) from 2009 (the IMF and World Bank are forcing policy changes on developing countries by means of debt and poverty) and we'd see websites like this one (g) (advocating debt forgiveness for developing nations).

When international institutions impose those dreaded 'neoliberal' policies, the mainstream German press knows just who is to blame, and righteously thumps the tub, writing articles that read like attac press releases. When Germany does the same thing, the issue suddenly appears in fifty shades of grey, so to speak, and we are reminded that the nations affected have been 'living beyond their means' and that there is 'no alternative' but for them to get their house in order, no matter how painful that might be.

An instructive contrast!


You Always Kill Yourself too Late

Emil_cioran
Via this isn't happiness: "It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” — Emil Cioran

The first part of this aphorism seems iffy, but the second is incontrovertible. Another of my favorite quotes from this questionable Romanian comes from an essay about de Maistre: "De Maistre suffered the worst fate that can befall an author: he was understood."

Don't Go to Law School

Hare1
Paul Campos, the relentless critic of the shady racket that is American legal education, has written a book for hapless young people who think they want to become lawyers. The National Law Journal provides a summary of some of the key points:

For example, under no circumstances should you go to law school without a firm desire to become a lawyer; without exploring what working as a lawyer really is like (watching Law & Order doesn't count); and without investigating whether your career goals are realistic (you can probably forget about practicing international sports law), the book argues.

Going to law school because you don't know what else to do with a liberal arts undergraduate degree was never a good idea, Campos writes, but it's a particularly poor choice when the average law student graduates with $150,000 in loan debt and a well-paying job is hardly guaranteed.

The book's critique of law school will sound familiar to regular readers of Inside the Law School Scam, although the tone is somewhat softer. "With the book, I tried not to be polemical," said Campos, whose sharp-elbowed blogging has turned off more than a few of his colleagues in legal academia. "My goal was to analyze the information in the most disinterested way I could, so people could make up their own minds."

Still, as the title suggests, the book offers potential law students more discouragement than enthusiasm. Campos cites the latest statistics about the declining legal job market for new law graduates and growing debt loads, plus deep skepticism about the value of law school curricula and the versatility of a J.D.

For would-be students who clear Campos' initial hurdle, in that they have a real interest in practicing law, the book suggests an extensive examination of whether a law degree makes economic sense. Prospective students should take into account the debt they will assume, their odds of landing the job they want and the salary they will likely earn. All while avoiding what Campos calls the "Special Snowflake Syndrome" — the tendency to be overly optimistic about one's prospects.

"Almost everyone who goes to law school plans to work exceptionally hard and finish in the top 10 percent of the class," the book says. "Ninety percent of these people are going to see their plan fail."

During my introductory classes here in Germany, I usually include a 30-40 minute presentation that makes similar points. The main difference in Germany is that university students aren't forced into 18th-century-style debt servitude the way they are in the United States. Doing poorly in law school in Germany is unfortunate, but it doesn't condemn you to economic humiliation and bankruptcy the way it often does in the United States.

But the other points are just as valid in Germany. Plenty of people go to law school in Germany with vague ambitions of achieving bourgeois respectability and/or making millions with a glamorous big-firm career. What these 19-year-olds don't know is that lawyers:

  • Spend 90% of their work time sitting behind computer screens (of various sizes) reading and typing
  • Routinely work 55-70 hours a week
  • May well be 'on-call' to people in many different time zones (beware the firm Blackberry)
  • Will routinely have to work for -- and with -- complete assholes (and, if those assholes are superior to them in the extremely hierarchical world of law, will have to simply grin and bear it)
  • Will be regularly asked to cut ethical corners or advocate positions they disagree with
  • Must pay very close attention to details
  • Often end up doing jobs they never imagined they would have to take because their grades were disappointing

Naturally, your mileage may vary, but I've never met a practicing lawyer in any country who didn't fit into at least 4 of those categories. I'm proud to say that my little lecture has so far managed to convince dozens of young university students to stop studying law and do something closer to their heart.

(Picture by Chauncey Hare)


My Thoughts on the Breivik Judgment

The LSE's European Politics and Policy blog has published a short piece I wrote on the Breivik judgment. Here's the conclusion, summarizing the way in which opposition to capital punishment gradually became the majority position in Western Europe:

This pattern can be summarized as follows. After a period of active controversy, interest in the subject of capital punishment fades. Since inertia (always a powerful force in politics) now favours abolition, there seems little point re-opening the emotional debate over executions. No drastic increase in violent crime will occur after abolition. If there is a crime increase, the experts will reassure the public that abolition had nothing to do with it, as the death penalty has no proven deterrent effect. Eventually, the press loses interest in the subject of capital punishment’s potential return, and politicians realize it has lost its power as a vote-getter. Open support for capital punishment lives on only among right-wing fringe parties (such as the British National Party, or Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party). The adoption of capital punishment by fringe parties therefore creates a sort of self-reinforcing ring-fence around the issue: even mainstream politicians who might personally favor the death penalty choose not to mention it, for fear of being associated with unpopular fringe groups.

At the end of this process (which can take decades) we are left with perhaps 60-70 per cent of a country’s population opposing capital punishment in principle. Notably, this opposition may be relatively weak — as I found while researching my book on this subject, leading questions can elicit support for capital punishment even among people who consider themselves abolitionist. This is where treaties come into play. Even if shocking crimes such as Breivik’s might prompt some citizens to re-think their death penalty views, international commitments authoritatively banning executions stand in the way. It’s difficult to build support for a policy that has no chance of being adopted.