The culture of law school is going through a sea change. Harvard Law no longer requires candidates to take the LSAT, and for-profit law schools are being held under scrutiny by their states’ attorney generals. Stanford University law professor Paul Goldstein satirizes the politics surrounding U.S. News Rankings and the unsettling journey towards tenure in his novel Legal Asylum. UpCounsel spoke with Goldstein about the wacky academic law system and what measures can be taken to improve it.
What do you think law schools should do if their bar passage rate falls below 70 or 80 percent?
The obvious starting point is for them to look into why that’s happening. One possible reason is that given the smaller number of applicants, they’re lowering their admission standards in order to keep class size the same. I think that’s the primary reason some of the people they’re admitting are less qualified to take the bar than the folks they were admitting five years ago.
What can law schools do to attract more qualified students?
My novel Legal Asylum pokes fun at these and other stratagems that law schools use to keep from spiraling down in the U.S. News rankings, but the problem is a serious one.
Do you think someone can be a good lawyer if they have a poor LSAT score or a mediocre GPA?
Within obvious limits—law practice does require a certain mental agility — absolutely. The basic wisdom about the LSAT is that it is very good at predicting your performance in your first year of law school. After that, all bets are off. And there are any number of reasons for a low GPA that have no connection to intellectual capacity. I’ve seen students who goofed off in college get inspired by the prospect of serving others and perform really well in law school and in practice.
Your novel Legal Asylum makes outrageous fun of the U.S. News Rankings. Why do people respect this system so much?
I’m not sure “respect” is the right word, but Americans are addicted to rankings. It’s a form of intellectual laziness. Rankings enslave law school applicants with their false promise of objectivity and the false comfort of believing that a school that’s ranked number 10 will somehow offer a better education than the one ranked 15. The promise is, of course, totally untrue.
Legal Asylum makes it sound like student law review editors have a lot of power, including influencing the future of a law professor’s career. How do you think a professor’s journey in academia should actually be determined?
They should be assessed through publication in peer-reviewed journals, just the way it’s done in every other university department but law. In a peer-reviewed journal, experts in the field will review a submitted paper anonymously to determine if it’s well thought out, if it’s going to advance the state of knowledge, and if the methodology is sound.
How do you think a student should decide where to study law?
The first thing a law school applicant needs to ask is, Why am I applying to law school? What is it I want to do with law? Say it sounds cool to be an environmental lawyer. Do you know anything about that? No. So you go online and find out what you can about environmental law practice; maybe talk to an environmental lawyer or two. If, after that, environmental law still looks attractive, you should go visit three or four schools that your online research indicates have strong environmental programs. Sit in on classes and talk with the students. Go to the school’s placement office and ask the people there where the school’s graduates get jobs. The answers you get will be a lot more valid than a U.S. News ranking.
Simply, I recommend going out and kicking the tires. It astonishes me that people will spend more time researching a used car that may last them five years than they will investigating a law school that will cost them a heck of a lot more money and that will also shape their entire career.