The Lingering Effect of the “Assault on Law Schools”

February 10th, 2012

Neil Buchanan writes:

It is possible, however, that the current assault on law schools could have a lingering effect, even in that happy possible future world, in hardening potential students’ opinions about attending law school. That is, we might currently be witnessing the infliction of wounds that will leave permanent, disfiguring scars on how the pool of future potential applicants views the prospect of applying to law school. Today’s assaults might be permanently shrinking our applicant pool.

I suppose that this relies on the premise that the purpose of law schools is to admit law students.

If the current ugliness is not necessarily going to permanently reduce interest in legal studies among potential applicants, is the assault on law schools nothing to worry about? Definitely not. To me, the long-term damage is being done to the notion of the legal academy as an academic institution. Even if future applicants are not being permanently put off of legal education, the public at large — and especially political players, many of whom are generally hostile to academic inquiry and intellectual freedom — is being inundated with claims that legal academics are fundamentally out of touch and wasting time and money.

If that critique — which, I wish it went without saying, is completely wrong — takes hold with respect to law schools, then it will affect all academic fields even more profoundly, because law schools have always been able to rely on being only quasi-academic (with the “trade school” label always lurking nearby) as a defense against the claim that we are mere woolly-headed denizens of ivory towers. If we are now much more vulnerable, what does that say about the humanities and the “non-rigorous” social sciences?

In short, The New York Times and other news sources are doing serious damage to the long-term prospects of the legal academy, and ultimately to society as a whole. That damage, however goes far beyond the possibility that our future client pool is being drained on the basis of over-hyped claims. The future of intellectual inquiry is at stake, and there is good reason to fear that the damage being done now will have serious consequences well into the future.

I suppose if people stop applying to Harvard and Yale, we’re screwed, and there would be a brain drain, and harm to the future of intellectual inquiry. But what about applications to lower-ranked law schools? If that decreased, would Professor Buchanan similarly fear for the future of intellectual inquiry?