Reason Not to Go to Law School #28

Posted in Reasons Not to Go to Law School on February 4th, 2010 by bl1y

Weird professors.

In addition to being lazy, ignorant, boring, and ripping you off, your law professors are downright weird sometimes.  I was digging around my old law school e-mail account looking for something else and stumbled upon these two messages I’d completely forgotten about.  I’ve edited some of the identifying information, but here’s the messages:

Subject: Urgent research request

Hi BL1Y,

Can you do a small research project this afternoon or tonite?
It involves finding ethical rules on 3 discrete topics.
If you can, please call my colleague Phil Goldman ASAP and leave him a message.
xxx-xxx-xxxx.
Leave him a number to reach you, I don’t have one.

Thank you.

Becky

Nevermind that Becky was my lawyering professor and had contact information from the entire class, so she did indeed have my cell phone number.  A few minutes later I got an e-mail from Phil, giving his cell phone number.  I guess he really needed me to get ahold of him right away and wasn’t going to be in his office.

Subject: Re: Urgent research request

Better yet.  Call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx

Phil Goldman

Anyone who’s worked in a law firm knows that lawyers have a pretty liberal understanding of what “urgent” means.  Law firm urgent usually deals with a partner having forgotten to give you an assignment with a deadline that’s fast approaching, or a client giving the partner an unreasonable demand and instead of the partner talking sense into the client, he just passes the buck to you.

But what the hell is urgent for a law professor?  Their biggest responsibility is grading exams, and I had two professors get their grades out late, so they don’t take it that seriously.  And Goldman was an assistant professor teaching Lawyering, so he didn’t have anything to grade, and didn’t have the publication duties of the regular, full time professors.

Perhaps he went above and beyond the responsibilities of his job (ha) and wrote a paper anyways, hoping to gain a better reputation and move up the academic ladder, and he needed some last minute research for a paper that was about to be published.  But, his current faculty profile doesn’t list any published work, and he specializes in immigration law, not ethics.

So why would an assistant professor need “urgent” research done on legal ethics?

I never found out.  By the time I got ahold of him, the issue was, I suppose, already resolved.  I got one of those vague “don’t worry about it” responses.  So, here’s what I figure happened:

Professor Goldman had some sort of ethics SNAFU, such as trading grades for sex.  But, not your typical quid pro quo, that’s too dangerous.  What you do is find another professor who can hook you up with one of his students, and he’ll inflate her grade, while you reciprocate by sending him one of your students and you fix her grade.

Or maybe he’d just been caught plagiarizing, who knows.  The thing is, since he wanted me to call his cell phone, he wasn’t going to be in his office, which is where most professors do their academic work.  Asking me to call his cell meant that this was more likely a personal problem.

And, like any prototypical American with minimal legal knowledge, he probably thought that the best way to deal with any sort of problem was to get incredibly lawyerly, research a bunch of laws, and throw statutes at your opponent.  But, being an assistant professor, his research skills were obviously sub par.  (Four years later, he’s still a mere assistant professor, and at a less prestigious school.)  So, he turns to a research assistant hoping I can bail him out.

Then, he realizes it might be awkward asking a student to look into whether it violates school policy to hide a dead hooker in the school’s coat check room during the summer when it’s not being used.  So, he tells me there’s nothing to worry about.

Pure conjecture, but it sounds pretty reasonable to me.

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Reason Not to Go to Law School #19

Posted in Reasons Not to Go to Law School on January 21st, 2010 by bl1y

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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