Reason Not to Go to Law School #19

Your professors are stealing from you.

After going through undergrad, most students have caught on to the highly unethical practices that dominate the text book industry.  A few professors get together, write a text book, and then it is sold to students all over the country at a huge price.  Then, to destroy a used book market (which generates no new royalties for the professors), every 3 years or so, they change the page numbers, add another 50 words of text, and release a new edition.  You probably could get by with a used book after a new edition comes out, but book stores won’t buy them from former students because it’s not listed as being used in any classes.

In law school the situation is worse, especially if you go to a top school (because professors at prestigious universities are more likely to be writing the text books).  Law schools, taking advantage of the terrible job prospects during the summer after your first year, hire law students at an incredibly cheap rate to do the vast majority of research and editing of text books.  After the first edition, most of the work is just making sure that the cases cited are still good law and scanning the legal horizon for any major developments.  This is pretty much all done by the research assistants.

In the end, text books are little more than compilations of opinions (written by judges) and articles (written by someone other than your professor).  Only a tiny part of the text is unique to that book.  The rest can be found on WestLaw or Lexis.  And, as a law student, you get free access to these databases and (at some schools) free printing.  So, a professor could very easily just give out a syllabus with the cases and articles listed and let you go get them for free.  But, instead they decide it’d be better if you spent $100+ a pop on the books.

To make matters worse for students, the text books rarely explain the materials clearly.  This is why supplements and study guides are created.  A lot more professors write study guides than text books, and their gear them towards the material they teach in their classes.  So, you’re fairly likely to be buying a study guide written by your own professor.  Again, the better your school, the more probable this is.

I don’t have any problem with professors, acting on their own accord, publishing materials that fill in the gaps of what text books don’t explain.  What I do have a problem with is professors not providing these material to their own students for free.  The students in your class are already paying tens of thousands of dollars for you to teach them.  So why should they have to pay extra money just to buy a book that explains what you’re supposed to be teaching them in the first place?  You shouldn’t have to pay your professor twice for one class.

So, we have a system in which students are forced to buy text books containing material they could have gotten for free, then they pay a professor to teach them, but the instruction is so poorly done that they need to buy a supplement, written by that professor, to understand the class.

But there’s still one important piece of the text book rip-off puzzle.  Most students are taking out loans to pay for law school, and this includes their text book expenses.  And, most of them are planning to pay off their loans by working grueling, unsatisfying jobs as attorneys.  On the other hand, professors tend to have pretty cushy jobs.  Short hours and low stress, all they’ve given up is law firm salaries.  So, they get that money from you.  Instead of working for a firm themselves, they’ve decided to get a piece of the action by ripping off hundreds or thousands of students each year (depending on how widely distributed their books are), and letting those students get the money by working at law firms.  Awesome.

Just to show that there really is a better way to do things, here are three real life examples I experienced:

One of my law professors actually did away with the text book and gave us a list of cases and articles to print ourselves.  So, yes, it can be done.

In undergrad I took several philosophy of law classes in which we read pretty much the same things law students read.  The professor had the school book store print up course packs that were sold at about $15 each.  The price covered the printed costs and a license to a couple copyrighted works.  We paid for only what we needed and saved a ton of money.

My other philosophy professors made a point of not teaching from books they had written, because they thought it would be unethical to force us to buy their books.  Law professors could do the same; write a text book, but then teach from a book written by someone else.  Only once was there a potential issue with my undergrad classes.  Ironically, it was Honors Ethics, and the last name on the book was the last name of the professor.  The book had actually been written by his father, but he still thought there was an ethical issue in assigning it.  However, he cited two facts that overcame the problem.  First, the book only cost $20, so it wasn’t a big burden on the students.  Second, it was the most widely taught ethics book in the country at the time, so assigning it had little to do with self gain, and more to do with it being a damn good book.

So, when you find a professor has assigned his own book for a class, feel free to raise you hand and ask him, point blank, if his book the absolute best book on the market, and if not, why has he chosen to profit from assigning an inferior text.  …And then make triple sure your class is graded anonymously.

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