Day: 2011/01/09

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?