Monday, November 7, 2011

Legal Education and the Heir of Slytherin

 [Jim Chen is a former U of M law school prof. The following material is selected from the complete post that is well worth reading. Emphasis mine.]

... I still believe what John Steinbeck said in East of Eden: There is one story in the world, and only one. Whether the setting is Will Rogers High, Hogwarts, or the law school of your choosing, formal schooling often pits Socs against Greasers and Purebloods against Mudbloods. The narrative is one of epic, ceaseless competition between elites and outsiders.

If you've managed to miss one of the greatest cultural phenomena of the last generation, let me introduce you to the magical world of Harry Potter...  In the mind of the Dark Lord, only those born to pure-blooded witches and wizards deserve to command the potions, incantations, and spells of his profession.

All of this prepares me to open one of the darkest chambers of secrets in law and legal education. Law schools and the country's largest law firms have long occupied — and jealously guarded — the most coveted corners in the American legal profession.  BigLaw draws its talent from the most highly credentialed students emerging from our law schools. Without elite grades, no student stands a chance of scoring a BigLaw interview, let alone a BigLaw job.

At some schools, BigLaw does dig deeper in the talent pool. ... At schools such as Harvard, Duke, or Vanderbilt, or Virginia, Michigan, or Berkeley, BigLaw historically has been willing to interview a broader spectrum of students. At schools that historically operated under a municipal charter and have dedicated themselves to the higher training and useful education of local youth, BigLaw has been decidedly pickier.

This is not an altogether flattering portrayal. I admit as much. In fairness, I will say this: My own corner of the profession, legal education, has been complicit in this elitist exercise. ... If anything, academia has doubled down on BigLaw's bet. We draw our own faculty ranks from an even more selective pool of candidates. BigLaw and American law schools have anointed their superstars on the basis of schools attended and grades attained when these lawyers and professors were students in their twenty-something years...

Excessive emphasis on pedigree over performance has pushed the legal profession to a point of reckoning. ... Law schools can no longer indulge the conventional assumption that they can focus entirely on training their students to "think like lawyers," without attention to concrete skills or the pragmatic nuances of actual practice.  Every BigLaw hire that flames out after two unproductive years should prompt honest recognition of the limits of elite credentials. Honesty about the limits of the existing model of legal education should prompt all law schools to ensure their students a true return on their educational investment ... to be as fully prepared to serve clients and deliver results as a lawyer can be upon passing the bar exam.

This is not a jeremiad against legal education and elite law firms. ... I believe wholeheartedly in the transformative power of legal education, motivated by a passion for teaching and informed by serious scholarship. For me to believe otherwise would force me to declare my own life an evil, bankrupt waste, and I emphatically believe that I have not lived in vain.
 ...the benefits of working in BigLaw or the legal academy affirmatively compound the heavy burden that its defenders must discharge. Those of us who care most about the legal profession and have gained the most from it owe a corresponding duty to take a hard look at the weaknesses of our shared calling. Whatever personal or professional inconvenience we may incur, those of us at the pinnacle of professional success must tell the truth.

How shall we make things better? ... Speak the truth and point to hope. This message combines my own experience with insights from history and literature ....  The world of Harry Potter is one that pits the virtuous Order of the Phoenix against Lord Voldemort's degenerate Death Eaters. Those stories, real and fantastic, teach us useful lessons. Extreme opponents often become agents of reconciliation. The greatest breakthrough between the Communist world and the West came when Richard Nixon, the consummate Cold Warrior, visited "Red" China. By contrast, those who prevail through conflict and confrontation often do so by virtue of some close connection to the enemy, perhaps even kinship. At the risk of spoiling J.K. Rowling's books and the movies inspired by them, I will tell you that Harry Potter ultimately defeats Voldemort on the strength of a mysterious connection that links the boy wizard to the Dark Lord's most treacherous powers.

And so it must be that a critic of elite legal education, to be credible, must be one who has succeeded by its terms, both in school and in later professional life. With your indulgence, I'll make my argument very personal. In my twenties I enjoyed a double dose of privilege and prestige: Not only did I attend Harvard Law School alongside the future President of the United States; I also clerked at the Supreme Court of the United States. These experiences gave me the privilege of choosing between BigLaw and the legal academy. I spent many hours in my thirties divining some of the law's most intellectually challenging mysteries, from the use of macroeconomic indicators in utility regulation to the legal protection of biodiversity and functioning ecosystems as information platforms. All those things came to me, in large measure, because I turned in fantastic performances in torts, federal courts, and international business transactions. Those grades predicted intelligence of some relevance to the legal profession, and I worked my hardest to make good on the promise of my youth. But the task to which I have devoted my forties, that of managing a complex educational institution for the betterment of its students and the clients they will ultimately serve, is one that transcends my grades, my diplomas, my clerkships, and even the articles on my curriculum vitae. Everything I've done in life didn't get graded in law school. Grades were then. Life is now. As a firmly committed Muggle, I am no heir of Slytherin. Fate did bestow upon me a bundle of legal education's most elite experiences. And this is what I have learned since graduation: There is no value in prestige or credentials. There is only performance, and those who have the wisdom to prize it.

No comments: