Monday, July 2, 2012

Thoughts on law school reform and the tension between specialization and elitism

Here are two long and interesting posts on law school reform. Some quick thoughts:

1. I may be repeating things that I have already said buried deep in the archives, but in the unlikely event that I have picked up readers in the last couple of years: the law school reform movement has two goals that are in direct tension with one another. One, the reformers usually seem to want a legal profession that cares less about academic pedigree and hierarchy (see the first of my two links.) Two, they seem to want curricular reform that will lead to de-emphasis on legal theory and policy and that will give students more practical skills that they can use shortly after graduation. Not enough seems to have been written on how these goals are in almost direct tension with each other.

That is, my law school (historically ranked around #25 in U.S. News) used to send most of the quarter/one-third or so of the class with the best grades to Biglaw, while everyone else scattered among jobs in prosecution, indigent defense, and smaller firms in private practice. I suspect it would be very difficult and expensive for it to re-fashion its curriculum so as to offer a multiplicity of vocational "tracks" to students based on first-year grades. Instead, I imagine a more efficient system emerging in which some schools specialized in preparing Biglaw associates, and others specialized in preparing students for less traditionally elite forms of practice. I see nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Indeed, while this is only anecdata, the non-lawyer members of my family, dental hygienists, etc. with whom I had to make small talk as a 1L all seemed surprised that I wasn't taking a specialized curriculum (or, as it was sometimes put, a "major") in a particular field of law. But such a system would inevitably involve sorting aspiring lawyers into the more and less elite segments of the profession much earlier than occurs now. LSATs and undergrad grades would seal one's professional fate much more so than occurs now. I'm not convinced that that's terrible; the current system actually seems to slightly undervalue low grades at competitive undergrads relative to high grades from less well-known ones, which actually might tend to penalize applicants from high SES backgrounds. But for those who care about elitism, pedigree, and hierarchy, this issue is perhaps grappling with more than it has been.

I am also intrigued by the discussion about greater local specialization. It is probably worthwhile, and I think law schools already do this to some extent (I have been occasionally puzzled when friends at Western law schools told me that they took courses in water law, and ditto when the Texans remember having taken classes in Oil & Gas.) That said, I am not sure how much variation there is across the country. Aren't small firms' needs pretty similar across the country, subject perhaps to a couple variations like the following?