Dear Students, Caveat Emptor. Love, “Your” ABA

In her January 25 post, my friend and fellow blawger Susan Cartier Liebel asks “what obligation does the ABA owe to law students?” Susan’s post and the November 2009 report, The Value Proposition of Attending Law School by the ABA Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crises on the Profession and Legal Needs she mentions should be on every prospective law student’s must read list.

While I agree that the report should have wide distribution among prospective law students, I respectfully disagree with two of the post’s underlying assumptions: (a) that the ABA owes an obligation to prospective law students and (b) that the sole reason d’être for not quickly disseminating the report is simple greed.

Like any guild, the ABA’s primary and perhaps only obligation is to the masters of the craft; to secure to those masters all the benefits and blessings of the trade and to protect them from external threats be they political or social. The ABA’s interest in law students is regulatory, after all were untrained apprentices loosed upon the public, untold damage could be done to the guild’s public image. It is not for the guild to initiate the unwashed into its mysteries, to be fully informed is only for the initiated and comes at a price.

The second is that the ABA and law schools are acting out of greed. Sure, greed has a role to play,  I believe that the overall mind set of the leadership of these august bodies is such that most simply cannot comprehend the current sea change is the real factor here. The ABA and its accredited law schools have concentrated on the need to feed compliant, incompletely but uniformly trained, completely interchangeable bodies into the maw of that post-WWII phenomenon, BIG LAW, driving students through an educational system modeled after a factory assembly line, and fixated on a employee mind set that allows no variation from the “associate-junior partner-partner-retired” career trajectory. Both the ABA and its accredited law schools have excelled at this task and in the process have traded innovation for growth and flexibility (read as risk) for stability with the law schools going one step further by trading credibility for rank.

It is no wonder that the ABA found the findings presented in the report to be shocking, after all reality was clashing with long held perception; cognitive dissonance is always an unpleasant experience (one wonders if the ABA’s 2010 outreach to solos is a symptom). Yet it takes more than being shown a sea change to sway long held beliefs – it took the Catholic Church slightly under 300 years to accept Copernican heliocentrism (talk about all deliberate speed); one hopes the ABA can shift its mind set with a little more haste.

3 thoughts on “Dear Students, Caveat Emptor. Love, “Your” ABA

  1. So you’re saying it isn’t greed (fear that facts would dissuade the numbers looking to enter)it’s more like inability to accept the truth – denial? Mmmmm. Yes, you’d like to liken them to the Catholic church. I’m more inclined to think of them as tobacco companies (schools) and the FDA (ABA).

  2. The church analogy is the first that came to mind when I was thinking of large, entrenched bureaucracies that are slow to change – its that teeth to butt ratio; a young wolf (many teeth, little butt) is lean, aggressive and agile, able to quickly change tactics and course whereas the old elephant (few teeth, lots of butt) is sedentary, stately and hard to dislodge from a chosen course of action.

    I have no doubt that greed is a consideration – especially for the schools, after all most graduate schools and especially law schools are cash cows for the sponsoring institution. But the underlying and dominate philosophy of American public education is to train a competent and complacent workforce (originally to provide office workers and factory hands for Carnegie, Rockefeller and the other robber barons) and it is not surprising that elements of this would carry through to law schools especially when the needs of the modern big firm closely model the needs of those early factories.

    As for the ABA as a regulatory institution – while it is in the ABA’s interest to set some standards for those wishing to train future guild members (mass training is so much more efficient than apprenticeships & better serves factory law), self preservation would tend to make dissuading outside regulation a higher priority than actually implementing true self-regulation (leave that for those times when needs require disciplining full members of the profession as they have much more to lose). Perhaps the better analogy is one of symbiosis and parasitism – law schools and the ABA have a symbiotic relationship with each other and yet neither can survive without the law student – the balancing act is to insure the survival and propagation of all 3.

    I agree with you that someone has some ‘splainin’ to do, I just not sure I want to look to one of the deadly sins for the root cause, when simple stupid mixed with a soupcon of entrenched bureaucracy will do.

    Whatever the analogy or the underlying rationalizations – the take away is the same – caveat emptor, because the salesmen aren’t going to tell students the complete truth

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