Liberal Law Professors Shielded by Hostility Towards Lawyers

I read Brian Tamanaha’s “The Failure of Crits and Leftist Law Professors to Defend Progressive Causes,” which castigates politically liberal law professors for participating in institutions that encourage both the class schism in the legal profession and law students to borrow unpayable debts. How could they not know what was going on? Tamanaha writes:

Seduced by the allure of prestige of material comforts, Crits and progressive law professors have become a part of the system they set out to reform. Watching market-thinking become pervasive and the gap between rich and poor in America steadily increase, knowing that on broader economic issues we had lost, we succumbed to the temptation to grab what we could for ourselves and our families. (35)

Ouch. It occurred to me while reading this passage that of all the topics I think or write about, legal education is the one where I think we need more “market-thinking,” so I end up sounding like a perfidious neoliberal. I’m not. Instead I think that what passes for “market-thinking” has largely shielded liberal law professors: Lawyers are regularly perceived as playing outside market rules. They chronically overcharge their clients—a belief that’s readily reinforced by actual instances of file-churning, etc.—and they don’t do enough for the poor given their awesome privilege. For the more conspiratorially minded, they file frivolous lawsuits against one another to drive up business, or they use their dominance in legislatures to enact laws that create yet more work for themselves. Even corporate America is powerless to negotiate lower rates against the almighty leveraged, billable hour.

The public’s uncharitable perceptions aren’t helped by economists who misunderstand the effects of professional licensing. Anyone who reads Dean Baker’s Beat the Press will regularly find the author complaining that free trade advocates are willing to subject manufacturing workers to competition with cheap foreign labor, but they hypocritically use professional licensing regulations as trade protectionism. Never mind that professional services aren’t as fungible as precision-made goods; that lawyers’ contributions to legal matters are usually more valuable than assembly line workers’ to their products; or that most states, including California, New York, D.C., Texas, Illinois, and Florida, allow foreign-trained lawyers to take their bar exams (subject to various other requirements, admittedly) with no evidence of lower lawyer incomes there as a result. For some inexplicable reason, foreign lawyers will be able to topple biglaw in a way that tens of thousands of unranked law school grads cannot.

An even better example is Clifford Winston’s, Robert W. Crandall’s, and Vikram Maheshri’s 2011 book, First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers. The authors calculated that lawyers earned 50 percent more than people who had the same amount of education. They also found that over time lawyers’ incomes increased even though their GPA and LSAT scores did not, and that the number of lawyer jobs created each year is significantly less than the number of people who apply to law schools. Therefore lawyers must be creating a huge deadweight loss to society.

No one pointed out to them that (a) demand for legal services is income elastic, which means rich people and corporations spend more money on brand-name firms as they become wealthier (and they have become wealthier); (b) the wages of lawyers are determined by their marginal product, not their education; and it might just be the case that lawyers are more productive than people who drop out of English PhD programs; (c) incomes for high-test-scoring people have increased generally over the last few decades as credentials from elite universities have led to higher-paying jobs; and (d) demand for legal education is not the same thing as demand for legal services.

One need only read First Thing We Do‘s introduction (PDF) to understand the methodological problems with the authors’ argument:

As regulatory economists, we find it natural to reason that occupational licensing, like other regulations that restrict entry, benefits existing suppliers by limiting competition. Thus its primary effect is to generate earnings premiums to practitioners in a particular profession such as law—earnings premiums that could be inefficient.

In short, it’s an argument from incredulity nestled in a begging-the-question fallacy: We can’t believe the legal profession would allow more people to purchase legal education than there are jobs available for them because that would mean lawyers are bad at creating licensing restrictions, and they would be callously dumping over-indebted, underemployed law graduates onto the labor market and tolerating a massive wealth transfer to law professors that doesn’t directly benefit lawyers. Therefore, the licensing requirements must be restricting supply and raising incomes.

However, the fact is, applicants’ willingness to risk rejection, which indicates they would pay full freight if accepted, increases with tuition. Behold the number of rejected full-time applicants at private law schools (ex. Puerto Rico’s and Brigham Young) and public law schools whose tuition is higher than the average private law school’s.

Adjusted Full-Time Private Law School Tuition by Full-Time Rejections

Those of you who wanted an upward-sloping demand curve, here is your upward-sloping demand curve.

Even in my private life, I’ve encountered two economists (whom I respect) who thought “licensing = labor cartel” applied to lawyers ipso facto. In fairness, it’s not self-evidently untrue, but it shows the heuristics that go into analyzing who’s cheating society and who isn’t.

Okay, I didn’t write this post to rehash First Thing We Do—not that I didn’t savor the empty calories and hope you did too—rather, I brought it up to show that “positions, not interests” explain conventional views about lawyers and law schools:

  • Lawyers = cheaters, thieves
  • Law students = greedy turds who refuse to serve the poor at lower pay and are whining because they’re bitter they didn’t get to be cheating thieves
  • Law professors = tragic figures because despite their liberal agendas, their students still refuse to serve the poor and aspire to be cheating thieves
  • Student debt for education = good because education = “upward mobility” = good

Once this framework for the law school debate sets in, it’s no wonder that Tamanaha’s peers call him an outrageous elitist conservative. It takes the ideological equivalent of a spontaneous reversal in the earth’s magnetic field to recognize that law schools have more in common with Bain Capital than they do with Legal Services NYC, which has been working without a contract since July 2012 and might go on strike soon. The dominant liberal story over the last thirty years is that rich conservatives and neoliberals (including cheating thieving lawyers) captured the government to crush labor and redirect incomes from the poor to themselves. Thus, liberal law professors are the types of people we’d least expect to support too-big-to-failist institutions. The fact that conservatives tend to hold anti-higher education and anti-student lending views further warps the discussion along ideological lines.

That law schools were caught fighting on the wrong side of the class war at the same time the banksters wrecked the economy is only a coincidence, but it doesn’t appear that way to the students, who are increasingly seeing a generational war between entrenched, entitled boomers and themselves. Law schools’ legacy will be a severely cynical generation—not something supposedly labor-loving liberal academics see themselves as promoting.

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3 Responses

  1. This post is dominant, and what social media strategists call “Capturing the conversation”, way to go Matt.

    Srsly, USNWR released this article today to capture their conversation: http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/law-admissions-lowdown/2013/05/06/make-the-most-of-your-first-law-school-summer?s_cid=rss:law-admissions-lowdown:make-the-most-of-your-first-law-school-summer&utm_source=MoggyTweet

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