Obama’s Bumbling Law School Reform

Barack Obama at Harvard Law

by Christopher Paslay

A token solution from Harvard Law Review’s token president.  

How do we strengthen the knowledge and skills of America’s future lawyers and help them find jobs in lucrative firms?  By cutting a year of instruction, of course.

According to the New York Times:

President Obama urged law schools on Friday to consider cutting a year of classroom instruction, wading into a hotly debated issue inside the beleaguered legal academy.

“This is probably controversial to say, but what the heck. I am in my second term, so I can say it,” Mr. Obama said at a town hall-style meeting at Binghamton University in New York. “I believe that law schools would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three years.”

The president’s surprising remarks, made while discussing how to make education more affordable, come at a time of crisis for law schools. With an increasing number of graduates struggling with soaring tuition costs, heavy student debt and a difficult job market, a growing number of professors and administrators are pushing for broad reforms in legal education.

This, coming from a man who became the president of the Harvard Law Review because of “broad reforms” to the election process.

Consider these facts, as reported by the New York Times in 1990:

Mr. Obama was elected after a meeting of the review’s 80 editors that convened Sunday and lasted until early this morning, a participant said.

Until the 1970’s the editors were picked on the basis of grades, and the president of the Law Review was the student with the highest academic rank. Among these were Elliot L. Richardson, the former Attorney General, and Irwin Griswold, a dean of the Harvard Law School and Solicitor General under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.

That system came under attack in the 1970’s and was replaced by a program in which about half the editors are chosen for their grades and the other half are chosen by fellow students after a special writing competition. The new system, disputed when it began, was meant to help insure that minority students became editors of The Law Review.

What exactly were Barack Obama’s credentials when he was selected as The Law Review’s president?  We don’t know for sure, as President Obama still refuses to release his academic transcripts from Harvard (as well as Occidental and Columbia).  One thing is clear, however.  Barack Obama’s name does not appear on any legal scholarship during his entire time at Harvard Law School.  Not a single oneZilch.  This is curious, as past Law Review presidents both authored and edited multiple articles and worked their way up the law school ladder.

Not Obama.  Somehow, perhaps because The Law Review changed their policy prior to Obama’s tenure and no longer selected presidents “on the basis of grades” (or on authoring scholarly articles, for that matter), Obama became the first African American president of The Law Review.

So it’s no wonder why Obama wants to reform law school by dumbing down the requirements—changing the traditional program from three years to two.  If he was cut slack during his tenure, why not everybody else?

Why not?  Because this is no way to reform law school and the problem of high tuition, high student loans, and growing unemployment among law school graduates.  A more practical way to reform law school, according to noted author and attorney Charles Cooper, is to admit that the legal profession has changed (the internet has rendered entry level attorneys obsolete), that real world competition dictates that “fifty percent [of new lawyers] will never practice law even in the short term, let alone as a career,” and that “third tier” law school graduates are getting left behind by the big name elite schools.

As Cooper writes in an article co-authored by Thane Messinger:

While meaningful reform would include the closure of underperforming law schools to reduce the grotesque oversupply of graduates, capping student loans for legal education to reduce costs, and removing bankruptcy protections for student lenders to “encourage” responsible student lending, a good start would be a conversation about law school—and higher education as a whole—that is honest and based upon reality and fact, rather than myth, outdated beliefs, and manipulated data that would make Wall Street blush.  That alone, and the realization that law school is overpriced, underperforming, and outdated, and that the inside of today’s legal profession is a far cry from the prestigious, stable, lucrative, and elite exterior it presents, will go a long way to forcing much-needed change—change that law schools and the ABA continue to inexplicably oppose.

Not that Obama, a man whose academic records are intensely guarded and whose scholarly accomplishments curiously lacking, would be able to grasp a real world solution to America’s law school woes.

One thing is certain, though.  Cutting law school requirements from three years to two will not decrease the pool of law school graduates, or enhance their prospects of finding work in the law profession as a whole.

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