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Allen Mendenhall Interviews Paul Goldstein About His Latest Novel, “Legal Asylum”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Law, Law School, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on March 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

AM:  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire? 

PG:  My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!

AM:  Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?  

PG:  I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.

AM:  In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?

PG:  One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.

AM:  Your book is funny.  Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?

PG:  I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.

AM:  You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero.  Why?

PG:  For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.

AM:  Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?

PG:  I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.

AM:  It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.

PG:  I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.

AM:  Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school?  I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education. 

PG:  My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.

AM:  Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book?  It’s provocative and suggestive.

PG:  I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example.  There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.

AM:  Thanks again for the interview.  Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?

PG:  It was a pleasure. Readers can buy the book at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Shop ABA.

Why law schools should be transparent about their problems and prospective law students should exercise due diligence before they matriculate at law schools

In Academia, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy on February 22, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

When I was in college, the common assumption was that students who couldn’t decide what to do after graduation enrolled in law school. The law was a fallback profession, the legal academy a repository for good but dithering students looking to find their way.

Things have changed. The blogosphere abounds with news about the crisis in legal education. The global financial recession brought about a decrease in law-school applications and LSAT takers while tuition rates continued rising. Undergraduates increasingly determined that law school was not worth the time or student-loan debt, in part because starting salaries for lawyers remained stagnant while the job market for legal positions remained saturated.

Law schools with struggling reputations (say, those which fall into the fourth tier of the U.S. News and World Report rankings) have experienced a decrease in applications and reduced matriculation rates. Forced to shrink the size of their classes to remain statistically competitive and satisfy American Bar Association (ABA) admissions standards, these schools have taken creative measures such as accepting more transfer students and developing non-J.D. courses and programming to counteract reduced tuition revenue.

Elite institutions are not immune from trouble. One study has shown that applications to Harvard Law School are down 18%. Applications to the University of Minnesota Law School are down 50%, forcing that school to scramble to save money. It reportedly has not only bought out faculty but also cut coffee in the faculty lounge. Dorothy Brown, a professor of tax law at Emory University School of Law, predicts the imminent closure of a top law school. Meanwhile, as these financial woes grow and spread, LSAT scores and bar passage rates continue to worsen at lower-ranked institutions.

The ABA and the Department of Education (DOE) are cracking down on law schools, the former in response to pressure from the latter.  The DOE, in 2016, proposed a one-year revocation of the ABA’s accreditation powers. Consequently, the ABA has more aggressively enforced compliance with its admissions standards, threatening law schools with, among other things, reprimands, probation, and sanctions. For example, the ABA instituted a remedial plan to reverse the negative trends of Ave Maria School of Law’s bar-passage rates and admissions data. Around three months ago, the ABA censured Valparaiso University School of Law and placed Charlotte School of Law on probation.

The ABA has not revoked Charlotte School of Law’s accreditation, but the DOE has nevertheless terminated this school’s access to federal student aid. Law students there have filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that Charlotte School of Law and its parent company, InfiLaw, misrepresented the extent of the problems they were confronting, thereby misleading students about the health of the institution in which they were enrolled. Speculation now circulates about whether the closure of Charlotte Law School is inevitable.

Indiana Tech Law School, known for its experimental pedagogical approaches, has announced that it is shutting down. Other law schools have turned to institutional consolidation to remain financially viable. The William Mitchell College of Law, for instance, merged with Hamline University School of Law in 2015. Thomas M. Cooley Law School affiliated with Western Michigan University in 2014, changing its name to Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. It closed its Ann Arbor campus that same year.

The good news for worried law school administrators is that the ABA House of Delegates has voted down proposed Resolution 110B, which would have required 75% of graduates from any law school to pass the bar exam within two years, a figure that would have resulted in the non-compliance of several schools with ABA standards.

In this climate of institutional contraction and uncertainty, law school administrators must remain transparent, lest they invite litigation of the kind facing Charlotte School of Law. On the other hand, prospective law students must complete their due diligence before enrolling in law school. Although the doctrine of caveat emptor has faded away, some residual form of it could benefit the wider culture. Absent any evidence of fraudulent misrepresentation or deceptive practices, law schools should not be liable for the poor matriculation decisions of starry-eyed students.

Prospective law students have a personal responsibility to make informed choices about their graduate education. They should examine closely a law school’s admissions data, including GPA and LSAT scores, and stay sober about their own qualifications and preparedness for law school. They should account for a law school’s employment records and bar-passage rates. And they should research the state of the legal job market in the geographical area surrounding different law schools, paying close attention to the hiring patterns of local firms and organizations.

Not everyone goes to law school for the same reason. Some wish to study at an institution with a religious affiliation; others attend schools that consistently secure for their graduates judicial clerkships or opportunities to work at prestigious law firms. It’s important that prospective law students know exactly what they want from law school—and that they refuse to “settle” on a law school that isn’t a good fit for them.

During this transitional period for legal education, law schools with a long history of recognized stability may not satisfy consumer demands as they once did. Law schools need students, and they’re recruiting them vigorously with mixed results. The days when law school was a prudent option for students who waffled about their profession or career are long gone. While law schools should be scrutinized for their marketing strategies and admissions and employment data, students, too, should be responsible for their poor decisions.

Accountability runs both ways. Law schools and prospective law students alike must equip themselves with knowledge of the legal job market—in addition to the costs and demands of legal education—and adjust their plans accordingly. Otherwise their future could be bleak.

Abolish the Bar Exam

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, History, Humanities, Law, Libertarianism, Nineteenth-Century America on July 20, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following piece first appeared here at LewRockwell.com.

Every year in July, thousands of anxious men and women, in different states across America, take a bar exam in hopes that they will become licensed attorneys. Having memorized hundreds if not thousands of rules and counter-rules – also known as black letter law – these men and women come to the exam equipped with their pens, laptops, and government-issued forms of identification. Nothing is more remote from their minds than that the ideological currents that brought about this horrifying ritual were fundamentally statist and unquestionably bad for the American economy.

The bar exam is a barrier to entry, as are all forms of professional licensure. Today the federal government regulates thousands of occupations and excludes millions of capable workers from the workforce by means of expensive tests and certifications; likewise various state governments restrict upward mobility and economic progress by mandating that workers obtain costly degrees and undergo routinized assessments that have little to do with the practical, everyday dealings of the professional world.

As a practicing attorney, I can say with confidence that many paralegals I know can do the job of an attorney better than some attorneys, and that is because the practice of law is perfected not by abstract education but lived experience.

So why does our society require bar exams that bear little relation to the ability of a person to understand legal technicalities, manage case loads, and satisfy clients? The answer harkens back to the Progressive Era when elites used government strings and influence to prevent hardworking and entrepreneurial individuals from climbing the social ladder.

Lawyers were part of two important groups that Murray Rothbard blamed for spreading statism during the Progressive Era: the first was “a growing legion of educated (and often overeducated) intellectuals, technocrats, and the ‘helping professions’ who sought power, prestige, subsidies, contracts, cushy jobs from the welfare state, and restrictions of entry into their field via forms of licensing,” and the second was “groups of businessmen who, after failing to achieve monopoly power on the free market, turned to government – local, state, and federal – to gain it for them.”

The bar exam was merely one aspect of the growth of the legal system and its concomitant centralization in the early twentieth century. Bar associations began cropping up in the 1870s, but they were, at first, more like professional societies than state-sponsored machines. By 1900, all of that changed, and bar associations became a fraternity of elites opposed to any economic development that might threaten their social status.

The elites who formed the American Bar Association (ABA), concerned that smart and savvy yet poor and entrepreneurial men might gain control of the legal system, sought to establish a monopoly on the field by forbidding advertising, regulating the “unauthorized” practice of law, restricting legal fees to a designated minimum or maximum, and scaling back contingency fees. The elitist progressives pushing these reforms also forbade qualified women from joining their ranks.

The American Bar Association was far from the only body of elites generating this trend. State bars began to rise and spread, but only small percentages of lawyers in any given state were members. The elites were reaching to squeeze some justification out of their blatant discrimination and to strike a delicate balance between exclusivity on the one hand, and an appearance of propriety on the other. They made short shrift of the American Dream and began to require expensive degrees and education as a prerequisite for bar admission. It was at this time that American law schools proliferated and the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) was created to evaluate the quality of new law schools as well as to hold them to uniform standards.

At one time lawyers learned on the job; now law schools were tasked with training new lawyers, but the result was that lawyers’ real training was merely delayed until the date they could practice, and aspiring attorneys had to be wealthy enough to afford this delay if they wanted to practice at all.

Entrepreneurial forces attempted to fight back by establishing night schools to ensure a more competitive market, but the various bar associations, backed by the power of the government, simply dictated that law school was not enough: one had to first earn a college degree before entering law school if one were to be admitted to practice. Then two degrees were not enough: one had to pass a restructured, formalized bar exam as well. Read the rest of this entry »

25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers

In Arts & Letters, Film on August 2, 2010 at 8:07 am

The editors of the ABA Journal have asked readers to vote for their favorite fictional lawyer.  See here.  But there’s a catch: Atticus Finch is not in the running.  It seems that Mr. Finch would have been too obvious a winner.  Candidates in the running include Michael Clayton, Ally McBeal, Vincent “Vinny” Gambini, Paul Biegler, Rusty Sabich, and many more.

My vote is for Paul Biegler, the piano-playing protagonist of Anatomy of a Murder.  Jimmy Stewart stars as Biegler in this now-classic film based on the best-selling novel by the same name.  The Honorable John D. Voelker, writing under the pseudonym Robert Traver, published the novel in 1959.  In perhaps the most insightful line of the film, Beigler says, “As a lawyer I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad.”

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