A New Year’s Resolution for Law Students: Organize.

Today, American law schools are like factories that no force has the power to slow down — not even the timeless dictates of supply and demand.

So writes David Segal in his epic New York Times article on the crisis facing the legal profession.

He’s wrong, though analysis pieces obviously aren’t the place for serious advocacy (and he did generously direct me traffic; welcome to the LSTB, readers).

There is one force that can slow the bubble down.

Law students can assert their collective power against universities to reduce tuition, demand refunds, excuse needless staff, slash faculty salaries, shrink successive incoming classes, and whatever else they think is necessary.  If they’re really bold they can demand their schools decline all federal loan funding and switch to a human capital contract system.  If university officials don’t budge, they can start a walkout or a sit-down strike.  Law students don’t have much of a future as middle-income Americans, and for their own sakes, they need to stop thinking like ones.

So law students, here’s a breakdown:

There are Cons, and I’ll list ‘em first:

  • Student protests like these probably violate school policies and local laws, and if you opt for the more dramatic sit-down strike you might get arrested or expelled, tear-gassed at worst.  I doubt you’ll be beaten unless you’re violent.  Then again, what do I know?
  • If you fail a semester for not showing up, you’ll have to retake courses, which means paying more tuition.  Expulsion means you get a partial education and no degree.  Perhaps there’s hope you can transfer?  Your loans will be due immediately and you’ll be ineligible for income-based repayment.
  • You’ll lose your campus health insurance, campus employment, possibly campus housing, and other benefits.

But the Pros!!

  • Most importantly: law schools are weaker than they ever have been and ever will be.  Perhaps this sounds counterintuitive to you, and if it does I suspect that impression comes from watching law schools and the ABA bumble towards reform.  But remember, this is a bubble: the jobs aren’t there and tuition can’t go up forever.  Law schools know their business models are unsustainable and that their students aren’t likely to have a future in law practice.  By organizing now, you reap the benefits of the tuition bubble popping before anyone else.  You get nothing after you graduate.
  • Law schools rely on their reputations to sign on new students, and student strikes are not good PR.  No sir.  You may be surprised how quickly administrators respond to a strong bargaining strategy.
  • University administrators are used to individual students acting out, but they don’t have experience dealing with protests.  And they *want* to appear to be on your side.  Many instructors wouldn’t cross a picket line either.  They also know that if large numbers of 1Ls and 2Ls don’t show up or pay tuition for the next semester, they don’t get paid.  They’ll risk a reduced salary over unemployment.
  • Law schools depend on students for their income, and law students can’t be quickly replaced the way factory workers can be.  In the long run, even transfer scabs won’t prevent the tuition bubble from deflating.
  • Better tactics: threats of lawsuits, outcomes transparency advocacy and blogging about law schools’ pathologies are not and will not reduce your student debt or tuition by one cent, though they get the ball rolling.  At best, these can discourage prospective students from applying to law school.  Unfortunately, they don’t receive consistently positive media coverage.  Often students and graduates with legitimate concerns are called angry, bitter, self-entitled whiners—even by their peers.  Tragically, even experienced professionals’ voices aren’t being heeded while others are silent.  People won’t side with fake hunger strikers or individual students anonymously demanding refunds.  However, the public will side with student bodies against deans earning quarter-million dollar salaries off their tax dollars.  The media won’t be able to ignore the students’ positions when they’re collectively asserted.  You’ll also find out who’s on your side and who isn’t.
  • Similarly, you aren’t alone.  Tens of thousands of indebted graduates ahead of you will stand with you.  They are a constituency waiting to be mobilized.  You’ll get the credit for doing so.
  • Even if you end up unemployed, degreeless, and approaching default, your odds of getting work are no better than they would be if you finished law school.  I risk muddying the waters with this point, but some people would rather hire a troublemaking law student than a generic unemployed JD-holder.  Politicians will take student debt more seriously and will court student union leaders rather than hand you a stack of fliers come next election.
  • Second most-importantly: if you’re in your mid-twenties, things are looking bad for you.  You’re job/income prospects aren’t very good no matter how much of an “entrepreneurial creative hustler maximus” people say you should be.  All this despite the fact that young, educated people should be the most productive members of society.  As a student, you have more power with your peers than you will competing with them on the job market.  Indeed, you may even be at the height of your personal power.  Now’s the time to use it.
  • Third most-importantly: A student movement has potential beyond your tuition and debt.  If you disagree with how the government views foreign military adventurism, global warming, lack of affordable healthcare, income inequality, immigration, and anything else you’re passionate about, now’s the time to make yourselves heard.

In the 1970s, American college students gathered the resolve to protest the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, some losing their lives at Kent State.  Will you stand up for your own financial security?

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4 Responses

  1. If this were done right, this could help scale back the entrenched corporate domination of universities, as well. American students are so concerned about building up their resumes, and not making any noise. At some point, these people need to realize that unless they take a stand they will be trampled to death.

    I am looking to organize, as well. If we fail to do so, then we will see tuition climb to ridiculous levels (in my view, we are already there) and this will become a third world nation.

  2. Great post.

    Frequent reader here but first time poster. When I was a freshman in college, a student group on campus conducted a sit in of the administrative building in order to force the university to demand a living wage for its support employees (such as food service personnel, janitorial, etc). The group was eventually successful, but that was only after it had spent several months protesting in a “tent city” across the street. The students who were involved in the sit in received suspensions and were given further sanctions. The majority of student leaders also condemned the sit in.

    What’s my point? The leaders of any potential movement have to be prepared for potentially serious academic and career consequences. There might be some employers out there who don’t care or are attracted to those type of “trouble-making” students, but it seems to me that most firms out there prefer conformity (heck, when you dress for the interview, the standard advice is “not to stand out”). Those “nothing to lose” people are still holding hope for some sort of job – it isn’t hard with google to find out a whole slew of information about someone with a quick search. Leading or participating in a protest is likely the first thing to show up about someone.

    Then again, people like Kimber from Shilling me Softly and Nando have gone public without any negative consequences that I have seen (they may beg to differ). Maybe those who protest would be met with praise. After all, the case against the status quo in legal education weighs heavily in favor of the student.

    By the way, I posed this question to a friend of mine who majored in Econ and frequently posts topics on the subject and wanted to ask you: If the federal guarantee for law school student loans was eliminated tomorrow, what would be the consequences? How would law schools and students react? Forgive me if you have addressed this topic in depth elsewhere, but I am curious your thoughts.

    Keep posting! Your blog is excellent and I look forward to reading more.

  3. ResIpsa,

    Thanks for commenting. I appreciate frequent readers.

    I see your point about backlash against student leaders. Thing is, I don’t think they have much to lose. As for the legal profession, I spoke to three attorneys over winter break and they all lamented the situation. I believe that this type of situation is different and that many attorneys/judges would side with the students, so long as they made reasonable demands and weren’t violent. Sure, I romanticize a sit-down strike, but a walkout would be equally effective.

    I’ll also add that (a) current practitioners benefit from reduction of attorney oversupply to living-wage levels, and (b) students would be advocating for efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

    I can’t speak for Kimber or Nando. Certainly Kimber’s employer (I won’t name it but I know what it is) knows what she does and as far as I know doesn’t see SMS as a problem. Nando is semi-anonymous, that is, you can find out his real identity from the TTR end, but (and I’m not doing this) if you search his name I doubt it’d connect to TTR because his name isn’t unusual as mine is.

    Speaking for myself, I put the LSTB on my resume and it helped me get a job. One of the best parts was when they asked if I was familiar with WordPress. :)

    As to your final question. I’m not an economist or a personal finance expert either and most of what I know is self-taught. As I understand it the federal guarantee insured private lenders issuing Federal Family Education Loans (FFELP) against defaults. FFELP includes Staffords and Grad PLUSses that can both fully fund a legal education as of 2009. However, Congress changed the law a few years ago, and now the government originates these loans directly, cutting out the middlemen. Thus, if the guarantee were eliminated for existing loans, if everyone defaulted on them, the banks would go under.

    Here’s my source. http://www.collegescholarships.org/loans/guaranteed.htm, though as I said, I’m no expert in this field.

    LSTB

  4. I always say that the biggest beneficiaries of law schools are NEVER the law graduates, but the law firms and other employers of law graduates.

    Another beneficiary of law schools is the faculty and the administration running the law schools.

    In this capitalistic society, why would the law school industry in general make the law graduates the biggest beneficiaries, when the people running the law industry are law firms, employers of law graduates, and the faculty??

    As a corollary, college education in the US mainly benefits corporate America, who are the employers of college graduates. Education in America produces workers for corporate America, not citizens for the society.

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