Are They Law Students? Or Legal Education Customers?

In case you missed it, there is an interesting debate in the New York Times today over whether business schools ought to treat enrollees as “customers” or “students.” The back and forth was prompted by a recent article in the Chicago Tribune and, in the exchange, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (president emeritus, George Washington), Edward A. Snyder (dean, University of Chicago Booth School of Business), David Bejou (dean, Elizabeth City State University School of Business), Richard Vedder (professor of economics, Ohio State University), and Mark C. Taylor (professor of religion, Columbia University) make some provocative points.

Although it is not always made so explicit, it seems to me that many law schools are struggling with the same concerns. How much control should law students have over the exact trajectories of their educations? Should there be more mandatory courses or more electives? How much time should professors spend on their teaching versus their scholarship? Should students be able to dictate (or at least have input on) how professors teach, what they teach, and when they teach? Should students be permitted to attend faculty meetings?

While the comparison seems natural, it is also worth thinking about how the M.B.A. context might potentially be different from the J.D. context.

Perhaps the New York Times should sponsor another debate?

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17 Responses

  1. jimmy says:

    why wait for the NYT?!

    Concurring Opinions should host a debate.

  2. Civ Pro King says:

    Exactly. Why wait? You host it! By the way, this is wake up call for law professors: law school is a six figure investment. Start teaching something relevant to the actual practice of law.

  3. John Steele says:

    It’s an important debate, but if it’s to be a debate about student input perhaps you could co-host it with one of the better law student blogs.

  4. Adam Benforado says:

    Jimmy, Civ Pro King, and John, I think that’s a good idea.

    And, John, I think you’re exactly right that student input in the debate is important (indeed, that was one of the major problems with the N.Y. Times discussion — they didn’t ask any MBA students to offer their perspectives).

    Let me see if I can get a few professors to volunteer and then I can look into soliciting student offerings. On the law professor front, anyone want to volunteer to construct a short argument on one side or the other?

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    The division of the world into customers and sellers is natural to the ideology of business schools. In the past 25 years, has it also become so to law schools? There was a time in the recent past, at least, when U.S. law schools were training officers of the courts, sworn to uphold the Constitution. If the difference between “the M.B.A. context” and “the J.D. context” were no longer apparent to such an educated, intelligent elite as law faculty, there would be as sure a sign of late-imperial degeneracy as anything Gibbon wrote of.

  6. Frank Pasquale says:

    I think the NYT should have invited Rakesh Khuranna, who has written a great book on the topic:

    “One of the key factors in management’s successful effort to establish its claims to the legitimacy and authority it enjoys to this day was another institution—once new and obscure, now familiar and powerful—whose sources of legitimacy and authority have become largely invisible: the university-based business school. When they first emerged, business schools were highly controversial institutions. The profit-maximizing imperatives of business were seen to be at odds with the more disinterested mission of universities. Business education came to be an accepted and uncontroversial part of the university only through the efforts of a vanguard of institutional entrepreneurs, both academics and managers, who saw the need for creating a managerial class that would run America’s large corporations in a way that served the broader interests of society rather than the narrowly defined ones of capital or labor.”
    “The rationale for placing the institutions of management and business schools side by side is not just that business schools shape the identity, outlook, assumptions, and aspirations of individuals who go on to become influential actors within powerful economic institutions. At a more fundamental level, the relationship between management and business schools is about how they have shaped each other as institutions and influenced other ones, in the sense in which sociology uses the term institutions.”
    “Chapter 7 begins with the economic crisis of the 1970s. It highlights the shift in business school logic away from the managerialist orientation inspired by the foundations, with its focus on abstract expertise, and toward an outlook dominated by the discipline of economics and the logic of the market. I attempt to show how this move undermined the ideals of professionalism that had long guided business schools. Chapter 8 considers the business school in the contemporary marketplace. In so doing, the chapter returns to the enduring problem of defining the purpose of business education, now made especially difficult by the diverse and sometimes conflicting views, interests, goals, and educational challenges presently characteristic not only of business schools, but of universities.”

    I also agree with what AJ said….there’s a great article in the Jan. 2010 Washington Lawyer ( on the abdication of professional responsibility by lawyers in the financial crisis. As Bob Gordon said, “I basically think lawyers saw their roles as just giving remotely plausible legal arguments for whatever it was the clients wanted to do.”

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    “Should students be permitted to attend faculty meetings?”

    I propose student attendance in lieu of faculty attendance.

  8. Larry Rosenthal says:

    Students spend all that time and money in law school in order to obtain a marketable skill. One would think that for this purpose, the law school should act paternalistically — after all, students have limited knowledge of what skills are valued in the marketplace, and presumably attend law school because its faculty can provide the necessary expertise. But, as law schools move toward a graduate school model, a decreasing fraction of the faculty have any meaningful knowledge about what makes for success in the practice of law, and hence little ability to provide the necessary guidance. Strangely, this problem seems to be greatest at the most “elite” schools. For that reason, law schools have compromised their own authority when it comes to preprofessional educatoin.

    In short, in my view, a large part of the problem lies in the move away from the trade school model. In the wake of the current recession, however, I sense a pendulum reversing its swing.

    Larry Rosenthal
    Chapman University School of Law

  9. John Steele says:

    Let’s also remember that the students are creatures of the internet age. They live in a world of decentralized information, connections, power. They are very comfortable — and competent — at gathering information and making their own choices.

    But to move into the internet age, law schools would have to change. Old fashioned “top down” management is old school: slow to react and adapt, expensive, stodgy, and apt to be run in the best interests of the administration. Alas, it’s old school and it’s law school.

    The students can easily be educated to make intelligent decisions about their curriculum, and they have terrific incentives to make their education meaningful and productive.

  10. Adam Benforado says:

    Thoughtful comments from the professoriate. Any student readers care to offer their perspectives?

  11. John D. says:

    As a recent law grad, I agree with just about everything Larry Rosenthal said. However, I would clarify that I (like many others) attended law school with little expectation of learning a marketable skill but rather because a JD is required for licensure. I definitely learned a good amount in law school, but I don’t think it made me a better lawyer (though it did make me a more well rounded person in some respects).

  12. Berkeley Law Consumer says:

    I can only compare my experience as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago with my present situation at Berkeley. The term student as used in my undergraduate context described a relatively open-minded person joined with others in the search for answers to “big” questions. As far as I can tell, law school has nothing to do with that. Berkeley Law does not welcome personal thoughts on the justice or morality of particular laws are usually unless they fit into a relatively narrow, decidedly liberal category. I’m told that law schools with conservative reputations treat liberal ideas in a similar fashion. I think law schools should shed any pretense of being institutions of higher learning and focus on their trade. Law students attend to gain a discrete set of knowledge presumably useful for passing the bar and helping to address future client needs.

  13. Mike Dimino says:

    I heard a great story about a similar exchange at the law school I attended. According to the story, which may well be apocryphal, a student complained to the administration about something, and protested that the school should be more hospitable to its “customers.” The administrator or the secretary then responded, “You think you’re customers? You’re product.”

  14. Ben Y says:

    B-school has the advantage that an MBA is pretty much the same thing from California to New York to Louisiana. The law, on the other hand, is significantly different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The same is true of medical school, etc.

    On the other hand, law schools, as they are conceived of today, try to service a national audience with what is essentially a state practice. You graduate knowing all this high level, cross-jurisidictional info on the law, but very little applicable to a narrow area of practice and jurisdiction.

    In my opinion, law school should be two parts. A “Masters” level degree, two years in length, that teaches what law school provides now. And then a one or two year, *completely independent* degree in a speciality. No “masters level” law school should be allowed to provide the one or two year “capper” instruction. That will help prevent these two, very different focuses from being subsumed by each other over time. Not to mention, the “capper” degree should be taught by practitioners, not by the typical law school professor, who’s practice is — at best — highly limited.

    So again, we need to break the three years of law school apart. Two years learning general principals of law, and one (or more) years learning a specialized field in the jurisdiction one will practice in.

    It’s basically the system we have now, except without depending on the good graces of law firms to provide the critical, specialized training.

  15. Ben Y says:

    Sorry about the crappy editing of my post above. But hey, it’s a blog comment. 😛

  16. recent graduate says:

    I just graduated from an “elite” school last month, so I can give the perspective of a student who’s been through the system (I know the most about how things work at elite schools, so I’ll limit my commentary to them).

    I can’t help but see the elite law schools as mostly just supplying prestige (like the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval) and a market (i.e., on-campus interviewing and alumni networking). I do not see them as actually *adding* value to their already generally smart, hardworking students.

    It seems to me that the main reason for this problem is that elite schools don’t care about refining their teaching methods. Rather, they fall back on the “standard model,” i.e., the Socratic method and an issue spotter exam.

    Is there any *data* to show that this is a better model than, say, whatever they’re doing at law schools in Canada, Japan, and Germany, or whatever they’re doing in business schools and engineering schools? Probably not, or at least I haven’t seen it. Is there any *data* to show that employers would like the standard model better than other models? Again, probably not — e.g., among lawyers in the real world, I often hear about how “useless” law school is, how it doesn’t prepare people for the real world, etc. Moreover, since the schools are the ones charging the big bucks but failing to secure jobs for many of their graduates, I’d say the burden is on them to give a reasoned, *empirical* basis for concluding that the standard model is better than other models.

    And if they can’t come up with such a basis . . . well, I’m not sure what the remedy should be, other than to just have a little more humility and–like any normal teacher–experiment more with the curriculum.

    Here’s some (admittedly pie-in-the-sky) suggestions: Maybe the ABA should take a role in encouraging experimentation? Maybe the schools should form an independent organization to facilitate and coordinate the experimentation among schools? Maybe there should be some empirical studies? Maybe there should be an independent commission composed of representatives from firms, the judiciary, non-legal types of schools, etc., that would write a report and issue recommendations?

    I’d also like a pony, darn it. 😉

  17. recent graduate says:

    One little qualification: when I say that “I do not see them as actually *adding* value to their already generally smart, hardworking students,” what I *should* have said is that I don’t see them adding more value than other systems of legal education would. Obviously, students learn a good deal of law in law school, and they learn a good deal about how to do legal analysis and writing — so clearly I was speaking too broadly. But my more general point remains: why this and not something else?