More overproduction of elites: news-related exam extensions at the Columbia School of Law Haw Haw

Columbia recently blew up the blawgosphere by offering to reschedule the final exams of law students who had been traumatized by the no-bill verdicts in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury presentments. The blawgosphere consensus, argued quite pointedly in this essay by Return of Kings’ Law Dogger, is that this administrative concession is making Columbia’s law students “pussified.” (Personally, I prefer “weenified,” since it at once evokes the penis, the use of childish euphemisms in the public discourse, and a style of low-end, unwholesome sausage that can be purchased from a hot case at the Kum-n-Go. This distinction, however, is a matter of taste. Neither of us has any.)

Law Dogger echoes a very important argument that has been made by other blawggers about these exam extensions, namely, that they establish flaky work habits in law students that will serve them terribly as practicing lawyers. This is a compelling argument. It’s practically unassailable. My parents got rather annoyed with the probate attorney who handled my maternal grandmother’s estate. This attorney was known in local legal circles as “Dancin’ Dan” because he always had some lame excuse for why he still hadn’t completed or filed basic paperwork in routine probate cases. As far as I know, however, nobody really questioned his competence, mental stability, or overall fitness to practice law. He was just a lazy North Country probate attorney. Nobody was stopping impatient heirs from hiring a harder-working, more engaged attorney from Glens Falls or Albany at a premium in exchange for expedited estate settlement. Crucially, he didn’t litigate complicated or time-sensitive civil cases or practice criminal defense. His colleagues would have committed seppuku before referring criminal defendants to him.

Columbia Law is doing wrong by its students. It is imparting piss-poor work habits in them while claiming to prepare them for an emotionally stressful profession with heavy workloads, high stakes, and strict deadlines. It deserves every blow of criticism it has received from members of the bar. But what I wonder is why it has made this concession. Columbia is presumably an academically rigorous law school. It should go without saying that a rigorous school demands a lot of its students (duh), including that they attend exams as scheduled and do well enough on them to maintain academic standing. Even if its academics are shit, however, it is objectively a highly selective law school, as proven by the stratospheric LSAT scores of its 2014 matriculants, who have a 25th percentile LSAT score of 170. The LSAT is a really fucking difficult test. I scored 159 despite taking at least two timed practice tests on my own and proceeding very calmly and deliberately throughout the actual test. The only ways to break into the high 160’s are to be a savant, to be preternaturally diligent and alert, or to cheat, and the LSAT is so closely proctored that cheating is out of the question without the quite unlikely complicity of at least one test official. This means that Columbia is recruiting its law students from the righthand asymptotic tail of the distribution curve. Everybody there is in Smartyland.

As they say in the law, cui bono? I didn’t even have to look that up, so be a pal and give me a boost to 160, why don’tcha. If the Columbia Law administration had its students’ professional development fully in mind, it would beseech them to take all of their tests in timed conditions, even if student health officials have granted them extra time for psychological reasons, in the interest of developing the habits and skills needed to pass state bar exams and adjust to the demands of the practice of law. Administrators would not cave in to the demands of whiners. Just because. There’s a difference between cruelty and rigor, and holding students to basic academic standards is the latter.

On the other hand, if what actually motivates the administration is stringing students along regardless of their academic fitness and letting them deal with the consequences on their own as graduates, caving in to their fickleness makes perfect, gruesome sense. The school doesn’t lose as much tuition money that way. If its graduates flounder upon graduation and go into a vodka-soaked professional and personal death spiral of unemployment and bankruptcy without the normal protections of bankruptcy law, it’s their problem, not the school’s. Law schools are cash cows for their host institutions: they charge exorbitant tuition but don’t have the high operating costs that STEM programs do in order to keep themselves stocked with microscopes, slides, research equipment, cadavers, and the like. They have a clear financial interest in keeping their current students satisfied. A student who feels that the coursework is too difficult and won’t lead to lucrative employment upon graduation is likely to drop out, taking with him tuition and auxiliary fee payments well in excess of the median household income of the United States. I shit ye not: straight from the horse’s mouth, the bar rate (heh) at the Columbia School of Law, before room and board (!), is $62,287. If the whiny or emotionally unstable student asking for the exam extension is a first-semester 1L, the university stands to lose up to $155,717.50 if the law school administration tells him that he’ll have to either shape up or ship out. If he’s already paid for the second semester and he demands his money back, the school will either cave or, if it’s feeling peevish or self-righteous, joyously offer first-fruits to the trial bar in the course of defending against his suit for racial/medical/fee-fee discrimination. Their institution helped teach him how, after all. (Grammatical note for the politically correct: Women can do any of these disreputable things, too.)

The cover story is that this whole donnybrook is about sensitivity to the racial, cultural, and medical backgrounds of Columbia law students. The operators of any old-money Eastern Seaboard institution of higher education know, after all, that it is crass to talk about money. One does not do that in the Ivy League. Okay, maybe at Corneigh-eigh-eigh-eigh-ell, where one can major in animal husbandry until one is caught at it. A high dropout rate can do bad things to an institution’s juju, and when all the smoke and mirrors and machinations behind the curtain are done, that means less money.

The student body ultimately has the power to break many rice bowls. It makes sense for a craven administration to pretend that its cravenness is intellectual in nature, not financial. One does not want to look like the operator of a Tammany Hall racket. Goodness, not in the Ivy League.

That’s why one brings in a “trauma specialist” to “hold sessions next Monday and Wednesday for anyone interested in participating to discuss the trauma that recent events may have caused.” Uhh, isn’t that why people have friends? It’s reasonable for someone living in New York City to be upset or disturbed by the no-billing of Daniel Pantaleo; it indicates that NYPD officers have carte blanche authority to strangle people for vending without permits. But why the hell is a “trauma specialist” needed to comfort students who are surrounded by other New Yorkers who have probably been following developments in the case because, you know, the murder took place one county away and they’re law students? Bougie say what? Is this about counseling grief-stricken students, or is it about providing employment for professional trauma trolls?

Lo how I have fallen from that world. I went to a liberal arts college, but I am now a humble field hand. I tend the noble grape. Okay, I also do winery work and occasional work with sheep and hay like the Western Oregon hillbilly that I never thought I’d become. But here’s the thing: I haven’t met anyone who works in agriculture for a living and acts like that. I’ve worked with Latin American colleagues, some of whom barely speak English, but I’ve also worked with American colleagues, both men and women, plus a few who can only be properly described as boys, and I’ve never seen any of them mewl about how they were traumatized by something on the news. One of my colleagues once mentioned to me in passing that his daughter had been murdered years earlier, and he sounded genuinely rattled talking about it, but he collected himself and got back to the blueberry harvest.

There’s something else about a number of the towns where I’ve lived or worked in the Willamette Valley, and I don’t think it’s coincidental. Salem, Lebanon, Springfield, Creswell, and Cottage Grove all seem to have fairly low Gini coefficients. Springfield, at least, is a died-in-the-wool union city. Even Eugene, which has some weird pathologies of affluence, doesn’t seem to be nearly as unequal as, say, Portland, or noticeably more unequal than Woodburn, which has a large population of unacculturated Latin American peasants, concentrated land holdings, and cluster of low-wage jobs at the outlets. The farm scene can get cutthroat on larger properties in the Mid-Willamette where growers and labor contractors scrape the bottom of both the white trash and campesino barrels for their help, but I’ve had excellent experiences working on smaller farms in the area.

Is the alleged recent trauma of Columbia law students really about Mike Brown and Eric Garner? I suspect not. Incentives matter. These students have taken on difficult coursework at a prestigious university in a highly stratified city. They’re probably dealing with affluent snobs who condescend to them or outright despise them for being affirmative action cases. They’re in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment, surrounded by assholes. An environment like that can easily have a cumulative traumatic effect. Why do you suppose lawyers drink so much? The problem is that it isn’t kosher to forthrightly admit that their very milieu is poisonous and to ask for concessions because they got too deep into a swamp that they’re helpless to navigate. Everybody at Columbia is supposed to be Type A.

At the same time, Columbia is a scrupulously politically correct institution, one that wrings its hands over racial injustice. Back-to-back no-bills in two high-profile police homicides involving white officers and black decedents is a perfect scapegoating opportunity. It allows students and administrators alike to save face by blaming students’ academic difficulties on their exposure to disturbing news stories rather than on the intractable awfulness of Ivy League law and its practitioners. It allows them to avoid stating the awful truths that their institution is a crazymaking racket, that the study and practice of law drives people out of their minds, that the law has been overrun by high-hat aristocrats and cutthroat social climbers, that equity has been purged from the system and they don’t know what to do about it, that the whole goddamn thing is pervasively fucked up but they don’t see any alternatives to trying to make a go of it.

Blaming a couple of adverse grand jury outcomes for student upset allows the can to be kicked down the road for another semester so that administrators, students, and possibly disgruntled alumni don’t end up in a litigious, acrimonious standoff over their involvement in a sort of racket. Few parties to this mess are terminally angry enough to be willing to live in truth. Ironically, the Garner and Brown cases are probably less upsetting to students and administrators than it would be to honestly discuss the dysfunction, corruption, and low morale of their professional and academic milieu. Only angry, disgruntled people who figure they’ve already lost what they have to lose have the courage to look that beast in the eyes.

The disgruntled graduate masses don’t let trauma about bad grand jury decisions get in the way of their burn-down-the-academy blogging. These are the sort of graduate that law school administrators really don’t want. If exam extensions are what it takes to avoid producing more of these students, even temporarily, news-related trauma shall not perish from the earth in our time.


One thought on “More overproduction of elites: news-related exam extensions at the Columbia School of Law Haw Haw

  1. Pingback: A Take On Our Profession | Lawyers on Strike

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