Assembly Line Legal Education: Transforming Professionals and Intellectuals into an “Academic Workforce”

Written by:  Deborah Post

courtesy of Jade Gordon

Let’s talk dystopia.  Would we want to see factory law schools where students are passed along an assembly line to graduation; where the exclusive measure of the quality of education is test performance on regularly administered multiple choice or short answer tests? We have all had those conversations with law students who admit they never did any research or wrote a paper while they were undergraduates.  Last year I had a student from a reputable state university whose major was political science.  The student confessed that the only paper she wrote in four years of college was in an art history class.

If accreditation standards are revised to eliminate the requirement of tenure and the peer review of those who are full time faculty with job security, I have no doubt that most universities will quickly adopt a strategy of replacing tenured faculty with part time or contingent faculty.  An AAUP report in 2009 on contingent faculty indicated that 70% of academic labor is now contingent. For resources on the use of contingent faculty in U.S. colleges and Universities see generally http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/issues/contingent/ .  We know the widespread use of contingent faculty in undergraduate schools is an unsound educational practice because we have seen the results.   The overuse of contingent faculty has been identified as one variable affecting the acquisition of knowledge by undergraduate students. Quality suffers when educators are treated as fungible – when one teacher is as good as another — and when the need to contain costs prompts managers to think about “downsizing” by using part time employees.  This failed strategy has crippled the U.S. economy and compromised higher education.  It is not a model we want to adopt in our professional schools.

Law schools are graduate schools charged with the responsibility for   teaching students not only the law, but also the values of the profession. When students graduate from law school they should understand the ethical and professional standards that are expected of them as members of this profession.  We are supposed to teach them about social justice and instill in them a concern for access to justice and a commitment to equal justice under the law.  How can we ensure quality instruction will continue if more than a majority of the faculty (70% in undergraduate schools, remember) become part time or contingent  faculty?

We know that right now there are “permanent” visitors who circulate among the various law schools, covering classes when there is a need because of a death or illness or a sabbatical.  They have no permanent academic home.  Imagine, if you will, a world in which law teachers live from hand to mouth, trying to put together enough adjunct positions to make a living. Try to imagine what the demographics of this part time labor force.  It is not a pretty picture.

Contingent faculty are not committed to any particular institution.  It is not their fault.  They can’t afford to get attached.  They are not present for students the way full time faculty are present.  If they are full time visitors or temporary faculty – however this is structured – they have little or no responsibility for decisions that are made about curricular design and no real interest in or commitment to an area of law in which they conduct research.  Contingent faculty may not receive money for professional development or full access to the resources of the school and in undergraduate schools they teach many more classes than the tenure track faculty. Research and writing are difficult and their prospects for tenure track status are slim. I don’t expect the conditions of employment for contingent faculty in law schools would be radically different from the  established practices that prevail in higher education generally. .

What disturbs me most, however, is the manipulation of people of good faith who are committed to diversity.  Many law teachers support policies of inclusion; practices which increase the representation of groups traditionally denied access to legal education.  Increasing the size of a student body in the name of diversity is right and appropriate, but you can’t do it on the cheap.  Expanding a program beyond a school’s ability to provide a quality legal education is a distortion or perversion of the ideal of inclusion or diversity.  Unfortunately, the ability to mass produce law school graduates is often justified, and the sympathy and support of minorities thus obtained, by invoking diversity goals.

I believe we have to be more careful about those who claim to be our allies.  We need to make sure that the minority students who are admitted to law school are getting what they need  –a law degree, a license to practice law , if that is what they want, and most important to law teachers who believe in diversity, the quality legal education that they deserve.  A legal education delivered by faculty who are committed teachers, scholars and participants in law school governance, not part time teachers without a stake in the success of the students or the institution, is one measure of quality that should not be abandoned in the revision of the accreditation standards.