ABA Task Force on Legal Education: Down with Status

aba status merceGood news for law professors now submitting articles seeking offers from high-status journals: the importance of status in American law schools is over-rated and is about to be reduced. At least that is the urging of an American Bar Association Task Force Working Paper released last Friday addressing contemporary challenges in U.S. legal education.

Obsession with status is a culprit in the woes of today’s American law schools and faculty, the Working Paper finds.  It charges law professors with pitching in to redress prevailing woes by working to reduce the role of status as a measure of personal and institutional success.  The group’s only other specific recommendation for law faculty is to become informed about the topics the 34-page Working Paper chronicles so we might help out as needed by our schoools. 

Much of the rest of the Working Paper is admirable, however, making the two specific recommendations to law faculty not only patently absurd but strange in context.   After all, the Working Paper urges reform of ABA/AALS and state regulations with a view toward increasing the variety of law schools. It calls for serious changes in the way legal education is funded, though it admits that the complex system of education finance in the U.S. is deeply and broadly problematic and well beyond the influence of a single professional task force.

The Task Force urges US News to stop counting expenditure levels as a positive factor in its rankings.  It stresses problems arising from a cost-based rather than market-based method of setting tuition. It notes a lack of business mind-sets among many in legal education.  It questions the prevailing structure of professorial tenure; degree of scholarship orientation; professors having institutional leadership roles; and, yes, faculty culture that makes status an important measure of individual and institutional success.

But amid all that, law professors have just two tasks: becoming informed and demoting status.  So there must be some hidden meaning to this idea of status as a culprit and the prescription for prawfs to reduce the importance of status as a measure of success.  I am not sure what it is. The Working Paper does not explain or illustrate the concept of status or how to reduce its importance.

I’ll to try to be concrete about what it might mean.   Given the other problems the Task Force sees with today’s law faculty culture (tenure, scholarship and leadership roles), I guess they are suggesting that faculty stop making it important whether:

* your undergraduate degree is Ivy League level or from a modest state university

* you went to Yale Law School or Yeshiva University’s law school

* you clerked in the Third Circuit and then for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or had an internship with a District Judge in New Jersey

* you won the Sears Prize or eked out magna cum laude

* your three most recent articles were published in Harvard, Chicago and Stanford Law Reviews, not merely Florida Law Review, Iowa Law Review and Law & Contemporary Problems

* your most successful book is published by Oxford University Press not self-published

* your course evaluations are near perfect making you the most popular teacher at school and regular winner of the teacher of the year not merely satisfactory

you get visiting and tenured lateral offers from schools that would not have considered you for a job when you started teaching as opposed to renewals of offers you once turned down

* you have chaired or served on your school’s appointments committee or dean search committee in the past five years or only on such pro forma committees as that overseeing ceremonial occasions

Is this the kind of thing the Task Force has in mind in its only concrete specific recommendation for law professors to address challenges in legal education?  If so, the Working Paper, despite seeming to be serious in so many ways, is really a bit of a joke.

It is as if the authors propose to remove psychology from organizational behavior. A meeting on the Working Paper is scheduled for this Saturday.  I wonder if they want many law professors to attend.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. George Conk says:

    Agreed, but is there no there there?
    A key event in my career was a article published in the Yale Law Journal which had a policy of blind review. I have often wondered if my lucky break was due to that. Mark Tushnet discusses this problem in a post today at Balkinization and I comment on it at: http://blackstonetoday.blogspot.com/2013/08/tuhnet-legal-scholarship-in-law-reviews.html

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    I agree that this was a very odd recommendation. Read charitably, perhaps they were saying that faculty should be less concerned than they are with their school’s U.S. News ranking.

  3. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    George: Yes, there is great deal of intellectual snobbery at a great many American law schools; but there is a great deal of intellectual snobbery all around us, at universities here and abroad; global professional service firms such as McKinsey or Goldman or Wachtell or Ogilvy; blue chip companies such as Apple and IBM; the Mayor’s office; the President’s cabinet; on and on. The idea that any sub-culture can simply elect to “reduce the importance of status in measuring personal and institutional success” seems naive at best.

  4. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Orin: That would be nice. But if that is what they meant, why not say so? They singled out US News in another context, expressly urging it to make a specific change. As written, it remains disturbingly vague, naïve at best –and probably much worse.

  5. George Conk says:

    True. As one who has lectured at a dozen Chinese law schools and worked with Chinese visiting scholars for the past ten years, I can report that the nation whose army once abolished indicia of rank has embraced ranking with a vengeance.

  6. Ray Campbell says:

    I took it to mean that legal educators need to find better, more disciplined metrics to measure institutional success. Tiffany may have greater ‘status’ than Borsheims, and there may be intellectual snobs at both companies, but I’m pretty sure that Warren Buffet doesn’t see maximizing the ‘status’ of Borsheims as being his main managerial goal.