I usually stay out of blogging (or commenting) about the law school reform movement. I'm guessing that I will regret entering this discussion, but I'm very interested in a debate in the comments on Daniel Filler's post on the New ABA Task Force On Financing Legal Education. Buried somewhere on the second page of comments is a debate about the origins of the movement, its participants, and its effects. The legal historian in me is *very* interested in this, because it goes to a central question: how does legal change happen? Does legal reform rise from the grass roots, from little people in obscure places making demands for justice? Or does reform move from the top down? And how does a consensus, once reached, trickle out to individual actors (in this case people who might consider applying to law school)? Specifically, how does the knowledge that law school at the tuition many are now paying is likely a bad bet migrate out to the thousands of individuals who are making decisions about law school? In short, this discussion engages a lot of the issues that legal historians study.
There are -- in this as in so many areas of life -- debates about this. The top down approach is represented by one commenter who wrote, "The ABA changed its tune when Barbara Boxer started sending angry letters. Then the NY Times ran its series on the lousy job market for new lawyers. Everything changed after that." That person explained in a little more detail in a subsequent comment that "Boxer's letters to the ABA prompted the ABA to change the job reporting requirements. The NY Times articles brought the terrible job market to national attention. Students could now see, thanks to Boxer, how bad placement was at many schools. Applications tanked. Schools have been trying to adjust to that market reality." I have to confess that I think that fits with a lot of my sense about how the world operates, much as I like to celebrate the role of little people, working from the outside to change ideas.
The question, I suppose, is how do these ideas bubble up to the level that Senator Boxer would be interested in them? Kyle McEntee suggests -- and I believe this to be true -- that there was a lot going on behind the scenes with the ABA and Senator Boxer. And while he says that it had little to do with blogs he thinks those who were involved were "influenced at times even if not originally by a lively community of concerned students and alumni."
One might reasonably ask, who cares who the agents of reform were. I think this is both an interesting question and an important one. Interesting because it tells us about how reform happens -- maybe that's largely a retrospective issue. From my vantage it looks like word spread about the poor career outcomes, which proceeded in lots of different ways. As applicants came to believe that law school was far from the road to the middle class and upper-middle class that it had once been, they went in other directions. There is a second -- and important -- reason to figure out who the agents of change were, though. As we determine who the agents of change were and how the ideas of change were disseminated we'll have a better sense of the directions of the future changes. I think there are important issues of pedagogy, the role law schools in the profession, the role of law schools and the bar as gatekeepers to the profession that need to be discussed. Those are related to the cost and job outcomes, obviously -- but they may be sufficiently distinct that they will not receive the attention they deserve as the number of law school graduates declines and as tuition comes down.
The image is a road at Monticello, which I used to suggest the question: what path leads to change? Though I also thought about two other images -- one of some imposing courthouse or state house, which might suggest hierarchy and how change happens (if at all) from the top down; and then something from the occupy or civil rights movement, which suggests change from the ground up. Much as I like to study and believe in the latter, I fear that the former is a lot more common.