The New York Times' Ongoing Coverage of Law School Deficiencies - Where's the Beef?

By Lisa McElroy

The New York Times has been keeping the law professor blogosphere in business.

How? By running story after story about the deficiencies in legal education. I wrote about one of them here, but that was just one. To be honest, I’ve lost count of how many there have been; starting early in 2011, it seems like the paper of record has devoted itself to discussing law school ad naseum, with articles, opinion pieces, and letters about the law school experience, Socratic method, the case against law school, law school economics, law school scholarships, the (according to David Segal) lack of lawyering courses, and more. The latest: David Segal (the man behind most of the law school coverage madness) has called for questions about law school, presumably to fuel another few articles.

But I’m puzzled – much like one of the commenters who responded to Segal’s request. As AngryKrugman asked on Sunday, “Why are you so concerned about law schools when many undergraduate and graduate programs are equally bad investments? Seems like the marginal benefit of exposing law schools has gotten lower and lower, while other stories go unreported.”

What’s the fascination with law school? Why not medical school, or business school (talk about getting folks to pay for a degree for which there may not be much of a market these days), or divinity school? To be honest, this preoccupation on the part of the general public just doesn’t make that much sense. Lawyers? Sure? Law students and professors? Absolutely. But nurses and architects and mail carriers? I’m stumped. Yet it’s clear that they must be eating this New York Times stuff up, because the paper wouldn’t keep running these stories otherwise – right?

I’ve got a few theories, but they’re just that: theories. Let’s take a look at a few.

First up? Schadenfreude. Yep, I’m wondering whether those folks out there who wanted to go to law school but didn’t get in, or who planned to go but then ended up taking over the family farm, whether those people, upon reading the New York Times’ coverage of all things law school, are feeling smug and happy about the way things turned out. After all, if those who did enter law school are finding it less . . . terrific than they expected, those who didn’t might relish the misery of their lawyer-to-be counterparts.

Could be.

It also could be a case of cognitive dissonance. Year after year, lawyers score low in polls asking about professionals’ honesty and ethics. If Americans think that lawyers are not trustworthy, that must mean that law schools are doing a bad job, right? Even presented with compelling arguments that law schools are doing OK – in letters by Yale professor Bruce Ackerman, say, or op-eds by FIU prof Stanley Fish – their conviction that a misguided educational system is responsible for a misguided profession cannot and will not be swayed.

What else? Well, there’s a case to be made that this New York Times thing is plain old voyeurism. Generations of Americans have been fascinated by law school – for my parents, it was The Paper Chase; for me and my law school classmates, One L; for my law students, Legally Blonde. There’s something inherently captivating about watching the kind of rarified establishment that most Americans believe law school to be, even though, of course, all of these epic accounts were situated at Harvard Law School, an institution that’s quite unlike any of the schools where I’ve taught and most other American law schools, for that matter. If these fictional diatribes on the evils of law school garner attention, how much better “real” law school stories to tell the tale of professional education gone wrong? Disasters capture our imaginations, and, if law school is one such disaster, then the New York Times has hit upon a gold mine akin to the serialized stories of yore.

Or the explanation might lie with the Times itself. People trust the New York Times. Unlike lawyers, the paper is viewed as reliable and in the know. If the Times says that legal education is fatally flawed – in fact, says it over and over again – well, then, so it must be. But the Times has been wrong on matters far more serious than the perils of legal training. Remember the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction? The Times was on the front lines (excuse the pun) of reporting on WMD and the need to divest Saddam Hussein of his power. People trusted the Times, and they supported the Bush administration’s war on terror. But the WMD turned out to be (put generously) a paranoid fantasy or (more critically) an outright lie. Is the war on law school based on a similarly flawed premise? And, if so, will the Times one day eat - or at least, temper - its own words?

Until then, the nation is riveted. David Segal is fielding questions. Will he answer mine?