Consider: Facebook and the Deregulation of Legal Education

Written By Hazel Weiser

Photographed by Raphaël Labbé obtained through WikiMedia Commons

At a time when the complexity of the world might seem impossible to navigate, the rise of Facebook, the marvel of Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire and Time’s “Man of the Year,” makes absolute sense.  It is a global condenser, creating neighborhoods of “friends” across geographic boundaries.

By way of explanation: The average user of Facebook has 130 friends. The vast majority of users are under 35 years of age, however, the fastest growing segment of Facebook is among the 55 and above crowd. One suspects that the “friends” on Facebook are not a richly heterogeneous group, but that friends tend to be friends with people like themselves.  We are most comfortable when our perspectives are matched by folks like us. Yet this kind of thinking makes the world both flat and narrow.

Now Facebook intends to end Google’s domination of the search engine world, not by creating a more powerful algorithm, but by contracting the search universe to only your friends on Facebook.  And Facebook is gaining on Google.  Just a year ago Facebook became the most visited website in the United States.

If I understood Zuckerberg during his recent interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Facebook wants to find answers to its users’ queries by searching the comments of other Facebook friends, not experts.

So if you want to eat macadamia-crusted halibut at a restaurant in Philadelphia, according to Zuckerberg at least, young people prefer to listen to what their friends have to say about food rather than rely on the tastes of strangers.  Therefore, instead of going to Google, one would just query on Facebook, whereby eliminating not only diverse and different opinions, but intentionally discounting the opinions of those outside of one’s personal network.  If you don’t know those people, why should you trust them with issues of taste and consequently, their recommendations?

Everyone gets to define his or her own exclusivity.  And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that those lines of exclusivity correspond with traditional social boundaries: economics, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

It’s one thing to ask friends to help find a restaurant, another when asking an opinion about a candidate or hot issue.

This appears to be a giant leap forward for the “de-professionalization” of American society.  Most daily newspapers have ended book reviews, letting readers read, and perhaps post, their own opinions on Amazon.com or even on the newspaper’s own blog.  Zagat is the perfect example of by-passing food critics.  Same is true of hotel and restaurant reviews with hotels.com and opentable.com.  As a way of competing against Google, in addition to hiring away its chef and financial officer, Facebook wants to set up a closed universe in which all transactions occur.  Different realities exist for different social networks.

But are they closed and closed-mined?  Will this function make the world flat and narrow?

Which brings us back to the deregulation part of the title of this post.  Law schools, too, are entering a period when at least some of the tiers, the ones without endowments and huge research universities behind them, might be moving towards de-coupling full time faculty and the development of unique institutional approaches to teaching (to match the needs and expectations of the students who enroll) from the preparation to enter the legal profession.  In the works at the comprehensive review of Standards and Interpretations for Approval of Law Schools is a move to deregulate legal education.  No more self-studies, well, how could that be bad, you ask?  Deregulation might mean using mostly adjuncts so that outside of the top tier schools, there will be no secure career path in the legal academy.  What will that mean for the gains made by women and people of color within the academy?

According to the AALS, in 2009, men still dominated the legal profession with 62.2% of positions. The legal academy remains mostly white, too.  71.5% of those academic positions were held by whites. 80% of deans are still men. And over 70% of full professors are men, too.

Overwhelmingly, men hold tenured or tenure-track positions.

So who gets to benefit from deregulation: the people who already have tenure.  We just saw who they are.  And the deans at stand-alone law schools who can consolidate their power; deans at schools where there are operating agreements ensuring some autonomy from the university for the law school; and the large, endowed law schools that never had to work that hard to prove their worthiness to the ABA site visiting teams.

Will law school teaching go the way of Facebook, relying on the opinions of the dean’s “friends” instead of accommodating the opinions and thought processes of a much larger group, a diverse array of “strangers” who just might be seeing the world, and the future of legal education, in very different ways?