It’s an accepted fact of life that there is The Acadame and there is The Real World and never shall town and gown meet. Nowhere is this belief more true than in the legal world.
Just to bring everyone up to speed….
Law schools use antiquated educational methods that supposedly teach students to “think like a lawyer” instead of imparting practical skills and information that would teach students “how to actually be a lawyer.” Not only that, but they charge so much for the privilege that – assuming graduates are able to find a full time job, a 50-50 shot at best – they are effectively debt slaves and unable to afford to help 80% of people who currently go without legal representation.
Law professors, meanwhile, spend the bulk of their time not in the classroom “performing scholarship.” It does not bother me that many law professors have had little to no practice experience and that many have gone from law school to judicial clerkship and then back to the academe. Nor will I ever find fault with a life spent acquiring and accumulating knowledge. There’s no shame to be had in spending a life in the Ivory Tower and even in writing the most esoteric, think-piece articles imaginable. The increasing STEM-ifciation of law requires a humanities balance. That all being said, whether or not we as a society can afford to have the sheer number of people locked away in these Ivory Towers thinking Big Thoughts is totally up for discussion.
So with regards to law professor scholarship, I am bothered by the fact that law professors, often at publicly supported universities, write law review articles for journals which are primarily staffed by the free and non-peer labor of law students. These journals are then sold – often several times over when you count up the various subscription databases that academic law libraries must subscribe to in order to maintain an adequate collection for the ABA law school accreditation overlords – back to the law schools, where they are then maybe read by other academics, dissected and then cited by future law review articles. Anyone who’s ever spent time in a law school has gotten the “Professor Jones’ new article is the top SSRN download!” email. Because that’s a valuable metric. And when Judge Cooter from the District Court in Bumfuck Arkansas actually CITES one of your professors’ law review articles? Hot damn, it’s like someone cured cancer. Doughnuts in the faculty lounge! But really, let’s face it folks, the primary value of these law review articles is really for a tenure dossier. Content doesn’t actually matter as much as completing the process. It’s the scholarly equivalent of completing fraternity/sorority rush. Then cycle begins again while more and more law students are sent out unprepared into the world.
In discussions of how to solve this problems, many in the practice world take a page from Shakespear…”First thing we do, kill all [law professors].” Even metaphorically, that’s going too far. Teachers teach and practitioners practice, and trying have someone do both is inevitably going to leave some aspect not done as well as it could be. Is it even possible to make the academe practical? I say it is. And I even have proof that it can work.
As you may know, Gentle Reader, my father is a farmer. A few weeks ago I got an email from him. “I spent the day at South Centers research farm. They held A Soil Health and Cover Crop workshop with several speakers…. ….After the speakers there was a wagon tour of the research plots. Did not get to pick berries though. It was interesting that most of the research is carried out with grants from various groups. The newest is research on hops sponsored by micro brewery operators. They would like to have it grown in Ohio.” To translate, South Centers is one of the research farms operated by the Ohio State University Extension office. This email prompted a thought that I’ve often had…
Why can’t law schools operate like agricultural extensions?
If you didn’t grow up on a farm like I did, you may not be familiar with county extensions, but they’re great! You can read this wikipedia article to get more information and a link to your local one, but basically they are part of your state’s land grant/ag school that performs research and create education programming that benefits practitioners (i.e. farmers) and the public. Some of the things that they have done include create hybrids of corn which they then would release without a patent, bring farmers into workshops like the one my father attended on new techniques in farming, have classes on gardening or canning for the public, and the list goes on and on. The faculty are faculty – they’re not farmers. They have PhDs and have a full scholarly and teaching load. Some of their scholarship does not have an immediate practical application. The difference is that these institutions have a mandate to educate and perform research that benefits the public and the research farms allow students of all levels to get some practical experience.
How to translate this to a law school? Well, obviously the clinical education programs are already halfway there. Now we just need for law schools to treat clinicians like actual faculty and not the red headed step children of the law schools. I also see glimmers of creating tools for the practice world in Clinic Cases, a free and open source case management system created by Professor Judson Mitchell of Loyola New Orleans. And while at a conference in Las Vegas recently, I saw that UNLV offers basic legal education to the public on topics like Divorce and Bankruptcy. Of course, law libraries have been educating the public on the legal system from the beginning, but if clinicians are the Cinderella of law schools, law librarians are the mice that help her sew up her clothes and the library is the carriage that turns into a pumpkin at midnight.
The problem is not with law professors and their lack of experience or knowledge. The problem is with a system that continues to reward the status quo. I was also recently at the AALS New Law Professors workshop where baby law profs were discouraged from blogging or trying something new because their promotion and tenure committee may not like it. I couldn’t help but notice the irony in the fact that this meeting was held in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, the same spot where Franklin Roosevelt wrote the famous line from his first inaugural address “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Make no mistake, law schools are facing a crisis equal to that of the Great Depression that Franklin Roosevelt and the United States were facing in 1933. Are law schools going to go for a New Deal, or allow fear of change to rule and cause their eventual demise?