(Un)masking Anonymity: Who's Scamming?

(image from illusion.scene360.com)

by SpearIt

I pen this piece inspired by a once-anonymous law professor and his guilt-ridden revelations about life on the job.  As if at a confession booth behind a screen of secrecy, “Law Prof” sits behind a computer screen and admits his scam.  Although these jaded revelations flow from a tenured law professor at mid-career, I offer an appositional perspective: I’m untenured and relatively new to the academy, with a thin, year-old tenure file.  Given the differences in seniority and experience, you might say that his view comes from the top-down, whereas mine is from the bottom rung.

Perhaps the greatest and most fatal con-fusion in Law Prof’s posture is the conflation of the professoriate and administration.  Clearly, law professors are not the ones who make decisions about class size, tuition costs, etc.  We are paid to teach, write, and do service.  These are quite exclusive spheres of work, but Law Prof instead sees a conspiracy.

Among his contentions is that law professors are “absurdly overpaid” and do “almost no work.”  Such careless statements betray the profession, and personally, make me think about my own debt load, and wonder why it looms so large if I’m so overpaid.  Indeed, my salary pays the bills, my student loans and affords middle-class status, but there’s not a lot of money-folding going on.  Many of us work hard for that money too—very hard.

Law Prof whittles down a professor’s work to 10 hours of class teaching and a slim 10 hours of prep time.  But truth be told, these hours are just the beginning; don’t forget several weekly office hours, five hours for meetings and administrative tasks, not to mention weekly hours of email responses and phone calls, as well as entrenchment in committee responsibilities.  Furthermore, for those presiding over a clinic, the hours can be nearly endless.

There’s also scholarship.  Most professors I know write and research in the remainder of time their duties allow.  Although Law Prof discounts legal scholarship, the fact is that many law professors edit and peer review for scholarly journals, write book chapters, white papers, and publish books in academic presses which observe stringent scholarly standards.  Professors must also attend and speak at conferences, community gatherings, and student functions.  In my first-year as instructor I made trips to about ten different cities to participate in law teaching conferences, scholarly engagement, student support activities, and service initiatives.  This dimension of the job adds many hours to the workload—yet some of my colleagues manage far more demanding schedules.

Since Law Prof’s hiring back in the 1990s, much has changed in the legal academy.  Yet whereas he views the trends negatively, I see otherwise.  Most important is the increase of professors with advanced degrees and substantive teaching experience.  As one professor stresses, “there are more PhDs in the legal academy every year.”  In fact, trends seem to suggest that more Ph.D.s teach in law now than ever before.  As these professors bring disciplinary training, theories, and methods to their work, the shift toward inter- and multi-disciplinarity must be recognized as a positive development.

Taken wholly, when the hours for scholarship, service and teaching tally, a professor’s workload rivals the hardest working lawyer at any firm.  Professors don’t just sit around and toast themselves, but operate in a competitive and demanding profession.  The point is reminiscent of Prof. Michael Olivas’ “Presidential Address” at the 2011 AALS Annual Meeting in which he detailed an average workweek.  Even though he based hours on a rare “non-travel” week, he regularly puts in a 70 hour week.  Some of my colleagues work just as hard, putting strain on their personal and family life to contribute to student education and the academy.

That law professors are “absurdly overpaid” may be true in select instances where the worker skims and scams, but from my vantage, it is the exception, not the rule.  And to be quite honest, I’m not even sure of what “over” means.  In other words, how much is a 70 hour workweek worth?  Can we compare the salary of a university professor and law professor?  Wouldn’t this assume that university professors are paid sufficiently in the first place?  What about a law professor who dedicated more than a decade of her life to graduate study?  Furthermore, what is absurd?  Is a state prosecutor’s salary absurd?

To be certain, law schools can hardly compete with private sector pay, yet the legal academy affords enough to attract some of the best legal minds.  Professors are frequently considered for judicial posts such as Goodwin Liu, who was nominated for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and more recently for the California Supreme Court.  Sometimes the flow goes in the opposite direction as with my colleague the Honorable Mike Wolff who retired from the Missouri Supreme Court to resume teaching—indeed Mike was already a tenured professor before serving thirteen years on the court.  These minds could be making double and triple what a law professor earns, yet they follow their passion and choose a more service-oriented path.  When I attended Berkeley, I studied with Angela Harris, Jonathan Simon, Peter Menell, and others whose brilliance and hard work resemble anything other than lazy loafs scamming the system.

Although there is truth to Law Prof’s claim that the profession pays too little attention to teaching, this doesn’t mean that some aren’t trying to improve the status quo.  For example, in my school, all untenured faculty are subject to an in-class “peer evaluation” from a tenured faculty member.  In addition to “peer” pressure is the student body itself, which is a self-regulating force for teachers to be prepared.  Students come to class with all sorts of skills and knowledge at their fingertips.  Were a professor simply to lollygag as Law Prof describes, students would catch on and the teacher’s reputation would vaporize.

Law Prof may boast about doing no work in the summer for his classes, but this hardly means there’s nothing to do.  Others are busy blogging about legal education, writing articles on the same, preparing to give pedagogy workshops in the fall, or revamping classes with new cases and exercises.  There’s much to do, but to choose nothing reveals more personally than professionally.

Another defect in his account is in assuming that law schools are only supposed to produce lawyers.  Rather than short-sighting law schools as a manufacturing plant for attorneys, legal education might be encouraged beyond.  Whether one aspires to business, politics, public service, or scholarly pursuits, law school may be a worthy investment.  And there is social good in knowing law, or as famously admonished in criminal law, “ignorance” is no excuse.  While the high cost of law school probably prohibits many from studying law, it is certainly true that many J.D.s use their degree in creative ways as non-lawyers, including as directors, educators, administrators, and more.

The flaw in fashioning law schools so exclusively undermines other values.  A more holistic view might see the school as a community resource also.  At my school, the law clinic wins cases for folks who would have no other access to justice, and professors serve non-profit organizations and community projects.  Indeed, Saint Louis University School of Law, like many other law schools across the country, is a hub of all sorts of community programming.

The scam attack smacks of paternalism as well.  Law Prof infantilizes students as if they have no idea about the costs and consequences of going to law school.  Yet law students are bright adults known for performing meticulous research into law school rankings; they are quite capable of examining costs as well, including debt risk.  In medical school or business school or any part of academia, there are no promises of a job, and the legal profession is no exception.  If a law school misrepresents facts and figures to students, however, that is a different discussion, one that still likely has less to do with law professors.  To equate scam with professors because a graduate can’t find a job reflects misunderstanding of basic market economics.  Yet even in rough times, the struggle may be worth every penny, as one attorney writes:

“Like most lawyers I know, even I had a low-paying lawyer job when I graduated from a top fifteen law school.  I had to work hard to find a job, and later I did eventually work seventy hard hours a week for my $48,000 at a Texas child protection agency.  But I would not give up any of that for the world.  I achieved my career goals and found fulfillment and feel that I am much the richer for having struggled.”

The perspective of the lowly proves Law Prof the scam.  His ploy of anonymity is specious and his tactics do something more pernicious than simply critique legal education.  Rather than boldly express himself under the shield of tenure, he distorts academic freedom, and as one professor reminds us, “tenure is a reward for showing that you will write the truth as you see it despite possible repercussions.”  It’s been less than a month since the tirades started, and already Law Prof has ousted himself to the Wall Street Journal.  Yet these ploys that garner him media attention simultaneously shroud the dedicated many striving for excellence and trying to improve the world through law—unfortunately, they are the truly anonymous ones in his story.