From January 6, 2016 through today, the legal academy has taken Manhattan by scam as the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) hosts its annual scholarly extravaganza at two midtown hotels, the theme of which is "From Challenge to Innovation: Legal Education in 2016." (Buzzword to English translation: Rebranding the law school scam ("Innovation") following a period of bad publicity and consumer skepticism ("Challenge")).
At the convention, the AALS boldly ushered in a whole identical era of hype and diversion as the Presidency of the organization passed from George Washington Law Dean Blake Morant ("One commonly held misconception espoused by the media is that there are too many lawyers. . . ") to University of Washington Law Dean Kellye Testy ("I don't see legal education as being in crisis at all").
This convention typically draws some three thousand law professors and hangers-on of various sorts (legal book publishers, ect.). Ordinarily, I would make extended fun of the participants' posturing and scholarly fluff as they collectively pretend that their free vacation is in the service of legal education and other noble causes. For instance, there was the panel on incorporating "trigger warnings" into criminal law classes and throughout the law school curriculum in order "to protect students from disturbing content." (AALS Program, p. 18) What a confidence builder that counselors-at-law in training are regarded by some of their teachers as too clueless and emotionally fragile to appreciate, absent solicitous forewarnings, that a criminal law class could just possibly involve a discussion of crimes. And then there was the roundtable on "Reforming Law and Scholarship by Disciplinary Design" (AALS Program, p. 23) moderated by Law Professor SpearIt, the clownish Ph.D. in religious studies, whose CV is untainted by lawyering or judicial clerkship experience, but who has established his radical street cred by changing his given name of Edward Maldonado to a stupid phallic pun.
But focusing on the irrelevance of so many of these panels overlooks the convention's constructive psychological function. Law faculty has just endured a semester with the scam-doomed Class of 2018, possibly the most academically undistinguished crop of law students in decades. That is such a downer that I can understand the urge to indulge in a boozy inter-semester getaway for a few heady days of ego-stroking and delusion.
The convention program includes three nontrivial events that I would like to highlight with brief comment. (See AALS Program, p. 21, 73, 74)
1. With the decline in JD enrollment, US law schools are seeking to create new sources of income by peddling educational products to "more and more varied non-JD cohorts," both domestically and in overseas markets. But what to do when the poor suckers actually show up for or log into class? The phrase "winging it as best you can" actually appears in the panel description quoted below. Somehow, I doubt that it appears in law school recruitment and promotional material.
The New Kids on the Block: Are you Equipped to Take Them On? Integrating Non-Traditional Populations into Law Schools
Moderator: John N. Riccardi, Boston University School of Law
Speakers: Megan Bess, Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Camille deJorna, Associate Consultant, American Bar Association Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Chicago, IL, Hope Kentnor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law William Powers, The John Marshall Law School
This panel explores the challenges of integrating non-traditional (non-JD) populations—non-lawyers, online students, foreign/ domestic LLMs, certificate students – into a law school. The pressure to enroll more post- and non-JD students is nothing new. But what happens when these "more and more varied" non-JD cohorts actually arrive? Does simply handing off non-lawyers to your LLM office make sense? What about slotting them into the school’s pre-existing JD infrastructure? And how might some options implicate the ABA’s "acquiescence" (do no harm) standards for reviewing non-JD programs? The underlying assumption is that schools have been quick to develop—or are developing—strategies to enroll more non-JD populations, but have spent less time thinking strategically about resource allocation issues. Career advice for non-lawyers? Community building for online students? Targeted academic support for foreign students? The new kids will likely have non-traditional needs and expectations. But who has the competencies (let alone bandwidth) to take them on? Once they arrive, will you find yourself "retrofitting" them into pre-existing functional silos—or perhaps just "winging it" as best you can? Come hear from experienced colleagues.2. That the AALS would hold a session on law school public relations featuring the phrase "reframing the narrative" is not exactly a surprise, given four consecutive years of declines in law school applications and enrollment, and ongoing critical scrutiny from the New York Times. What is disappointing is that the head of the American Bar Association is scheduled to participate. Also that the ABA Section on Legal Education is a "Gold Sponsor" financial contributor to the AALS Convention. Some well-meaning advice to these "distinguished leaders" from one of those pesky "others" who "so often" portray law school in a negative light: Without a cool distance between regulators and regulated, the scam narrative is likely to prevail, no matter how glibly you promote the alleged positive attributes of your enterprise.
A Conversation - Reframing the Narrative on Legal Education
Moderator: Gregory H. Williams, Former President, The City College of New York, and University of Cincinnati, Former Dean, Ohio State University, Michael E. Moritz College of Law, Hastings on Hudson, NY
Speakers: Paulette Brown, President, American Bar Association, Locke Lord LLP, Morristown, NJ, Richard A. Matasar, Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Institutional Effectiveness, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, Blake D. Morant, The George Washington University Law School
Join Dean Blake D. Morant, AALS President, ABA President Paulette Brown and former law school dean Richard Matasar (Chicago-Kent, University of Florida and New York Law School) in a conversation moderated by former AALS President Gregory Williams, about reframing the narrative on legal education and the legal profession. These distinguished leaders will share their perspectives on the positive attributes of legal education and the profession in counterpoint to the negative light in which law schools and the legal profession are so often portrayed today by the media and others. A brief Q&A with audience participation will follow.3. There are some timeless truths that are undisputed even by the most trailblazing innovator or the most critical of critical studies scholars. For instance, that legal education is and will remain a "good investment" and that advocating for the "institutional advancement" of law schools is the same thing as advocating for the legal profession. Unfortunately, there are many unenlightened persons who fail to appreciate the value of legal education. That is why it is so necessary for institutional leaders to refine and rehearse their media-savvy spiel or "pitch" to the level of a polished TED-talk. "Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right up" just won't do.
The Value of Legal Education and Why It’s a Good Investment Now and in the Future
Moderator: Michael E. Waterstone, Loyola Law School
Speakers: Julia Erwin-Weiner, Stanford Law School, Katrin Hussmann, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, Daniel B. Rodriguez, Northwestern University Pritzker, School of Law
Whether your audience is donors, students, alumni or faculty, being an advocate for the profession is important to shaping the conversation. To close out this conference, join us for a send-off from three leaders in Institutional Advancement who will share their thoughts on the future of legal education and the roles of Institutional Advancement in it. Through TED Talk-style presentations, each speaker will give a ten-minute “pitch” on why legal education is a worthwhile investment. Following these presentations, the speakers will be available for small group discussions.