If water coolers exist in 2040, one of them might be a backdrop for this conversation:
Junior Faculty 1: Did you hear that Perlman is retiring?
JF2: I heard. Too bad. He’s a nice guy.
JF1: Yeah, he’s nice. But he’s part of that old guard who really don’t do much to move the school forward.
JF2: What do you mean? I thought he’s still pretty productive?
JF1: It’s not that he’s unengaged; it’s just that he focuses on all of the wrong things. He’s one of those people hired in the late 20th century and the early part of this century.
JF2: I’m not sure what you’re driving at.
JF1: Obviously, you don’t know your history.
JF2: Educate me.
JF1: Well, there was a legal education boom in the latter part of the last century. The legal profession was growing quickly, and there were a lot of high paying jobs at stand alone law firms. It was before the rise of all of these mega companies, like PriceWaterhouseSkadden. I think there was some change in some ethics rules that caused the shift. Something about multidisciplinary practices or some such thing. Anyway, law schools back then were cash cows for universities, primarily because of how law students were taught and the jobs they could get.
JF2: I don’t follow.
JF1: For a long time, most schools relied heavily on large student-faculty ratios, with large classes that were taught using the Socratic method. There was relatively little practical training, so law schools could collect a lot of tuition and pay for fancy buildings and high professor salaries and then send lots of students off to high paying jobs. Haven’t you seen all of those beautiful law school buildings that were built between 1990 and 2010?
JF2: Now that you mention it, you’re right. So what happened?
JF1: Here’s the other wrinkle. There was this magazine. I think it was called U.S. Report and News, or some such thing. I can’t remember; it’s not around anymore. It had an annual ranking of law schools that was really important, so law schools tried to do a lot of things to affect their rankings, including how they hired faculty members.
JF2: You’re making that up. You’re saying that a magazine influenced what kind of people law schools hired?
JF2: Ok. Let’s just say that I believe you. How does that relate to Perlman?
JF1: Perlman was hired during that time frame, when law schools were competing against each other to become as “reputable” as they could. And “reputable” meant that faculty members at other law schools respected you. So the game was all about hiring faculty members who would become known to a lot of other faculty members at other law school.
JF2: So what kind of people would fit that description?
JF1: People who graduated from elite schools and intended to write law review articles, especially theoretical articles that would appeal to other academics. Better yet, people who did a lot of work in non-law fields, like economics or psychology, and such things. It didn’t matter whether people wrote articles that would help lawyers or judges. All that mattered was proving to other law professors that you were smart. So people wrote a lot of theoretical and impractical garbage that only other law professors would read. Some of them even put their garbage, and other silly stuff, on the Internet using something called blogs. Anyway, as long as other professors thought you were smart, you were doing a good job.
JF2: So law schools didn’t care too much about teaching students how to practice?
JF1: Well, they gave lip service to it. They had clinical programs.
JF2: Never heard of them.
JF1: That’s because the entire law school is now a clinical program. Everyone works together to train law students how to practice law; we don’t think of practical training as somehow distinct. But back then, it was different. Most of the faculty would help students learn how to “think like a lawyer” by dragging them through a bunch of cases in class. And professors would spend the rest of their time writing gigantic, heavily footnoted articles that would be read exclusively by other professors. Because we don’t write those things anymore, we have more time to help students learn how to become great lawyers.
JF2: The way they did things sounds so unsound.
JF1: I know. It was. But Perlman is from that era, and he still thinks that there was some value in the old ways.
JF2: What a dinosaur.
JF1: I know.
JF2: Do you think people will be talking about us like this in 30 years, when we retire?
JF1: I doubt it.