I think everything you said is true, but it is exactly what is wrong with legal education.
* * *
It is too bad the MacCrate report did not go any further than it did, but one failure doesn't mean people should stop. Hopefully more people like him stand up and make an attempt to change the system that is in serious need of reform.
Bigs & All -
Would you believe the antitrust route was tried? Feisty Massachusetts School of Law, which refuses to go through ABA's accreditation ritual because it would mean higher tuition and less well-rounded students [yes, you read that right], plugs away but with no discernable movement on the part of Dean Velvel and MSL's many complaints. There was--surprise!--a settlement in that case between the Department of Justice and the ABA.
As to MacCrate, he and his report were akin to the 1983 report A Nation At Risk,
which excoriated our educational system. It would have been hard to have been more critical than MacCrate and his committee were of legal education. It would have been all but impossible to be more "powerful." To repeat, he was a voice from the inside, at the top of the profession, commissioned by the ABA. [!] Not only has nothing happened, but what has happened has tended to make the situation worse, not better. A random sampling of grandparents--from all walks of life and whether as to high schools, college, or law school--would be appalled at our system now.
Unfortunately, the incentives in the system are too deeply embedded. The solution that fails to address those incentives will fail, period. (Paradoxically, the closest this came was during Bush II, when the Administration spanked the ABA for its rather ham-handed handling of judicial nominations.)
I became interested in this over a decade ago, in response to a reader of Young Lawyer's Jungle Book who later wrote Planet Law School. If there is "harsher than MacCrate," Atticus Falcon is it. It took some years for me to come around, and in my second book, on law school (GGG), I address many of the issues we're talking about.
Also, I fully agree with you as to the quality of lawyers within the profession. This has been and remains a common complaint among practitioners and judges (including Supreme Court justices). I too agree that, were this medical school, this would be raw malpractice. (In fact I argue just this in GGG.) Falcon uses "pedagogical malpractice" enough that even I start rolling my eyes.
One way to think of this is to separate the ideal from the individual. Idealism is a dangerous thing (even if you happen to have just the right brand of idealism), because it runs up against human nature. [Worse still is an idealist with power, as then there's little to check that righteous ambition.] At another end of the scale is a combination of reality and individualism. So, for an individual, the answers are usually to (1) understand what is going on, (2) avoid the worst dangers, and even (3) take advantage of the system toward one's own ends.
[Yes, there is an idealism that does work, grounded in realism and focused on rules of the road. Unfortunately, this now cuts very much against the social and educational grain.]
The problem vis-a-vis law school is that among those incentives are incentives--very strong incentives--to believe in the system. Those who get great grades from top schools are crowned victors, and everyone else mutters about how rigged this system is. Well, yes. But it's rigged for reasons having little to do with U.S. News. U.S. News is the symptom, not the disease.
A slightly different take on a point on which I would disagree: students are not customers, nor should they be treated as such. This is one among many illnesses that infect our educational system--albeit not, for different reasons, in law school. Students should be treated courteously, of course, and with respect. But allegience is owed to the profession first, and then
to students. What happens when the pendulum swings too far from the bad old days of professors as demigods to one in which the entire system is nearly scared of its own shadow for fear of angering any segment of the student population, or of "serving" their "customer"? Would you like fries with that degree? It should come as no surprise that learning is likely to be less than it might in such a system, and--here's the key--the ones most harmed are those students who are most at risk: who could have achieved more with a few truer assessments and prods. What happens instead is a system of a relatively thin layer of insiders with ample help on the side . . . and, well, everyone else.
I would argue that in fact a focus on the students is part of what causes so much harm, as, by definition, students are not yet aware of what is important. One need only imagine a senior practitioner in place of a law professor for a few minutes to realize just how pointless most classroom discussions are. Unfortunately, most students understandably misinterpret feel-good discussion for meaningful learning. They take armfuls of notes and then wonder just what it is they're supposed to be doing. They wake up several months later, when exam results are in.
Sorry, didn't mean to go off on such a tangent. I've heard the "I'm a customer!" line rather too often, and see just how pernicious the effects are.
So, yes, the system is misaligned. Badly misaligned. And while I suspect we would agree on nearly everything, the real challenge for any individual student reading this [Say, that's everyone!] is, after the healthful venting, to refocus on what this all means. For that I would go back to the intial comments: rankings are important because people believe that they are. People want
to believe. Hey, it's your species. How
they're important, however, is not how they're commonly used. Moreover, for anyone already in law school, the real challenge is to do well, which is far harder than it seems. The forced curve is just one culprit. The more serious culprit are the many maladaptive behaviors from high school through college. If you don't believe me, try another professor: the author of Law School Undercover. He offers another inside look at something of some importance: exams.
To bigs, thank you. This is why we go to law school. = : )