Thursday, July 31, 2014

Maybe the Problem is... Too Many Law Schools?

The New York Times has run some viewpoints on the idea of replacing part of a conventional legal education (three years of law school) with "legal apprenticeships". Some of the authors share concern about the high cost of a law degree, but no attention is paid to why that cost is so high (I'll give you a few hints: fabulous infrastructure, high administrator salaries, high law professor salaries, and low course loads for professors). Frankly, if you look at their core mission and core function, there is no need for law schools to be anywhere near as costly as they are.

From the other direction, there is concern that students will lose out on enlightening classroom discussions. I doubt that things have changed much since I was in law school, where professors were often heard to complain about apathy taking root in the second year of law school, and being firmly established by the third year such that it was difficult to get students to participate in classroom discussion. It wasn't just apathy, as some students are intimidated by classroom participation, some law professors are bullies and some law professors simply aren't any good at leading classroom discussions. Whatever the cause, after the coercion of the first year of law school, of being called upon and put under a very bright spotlight, many students did largely or completely withdraw from classroom discussions.

One contributor enthusiastically gushes over the glorious educational experience that is law school, never mind that practitioners often have a very different take on the benefits of law school education than law professors. Don't get me wrong, most practitioners appreciate the manner in which a good legal education can cause you to analyze issues and develop arguments, but there is much more to legal practice and law school has historically done a poor job of preparing law students for the actual practice of law.

I don't find the argument for apprenticeships to be particularly compelling, either. The critics question whether apprenticeships would be managed by appropriately competent, dedicated supervising attorneys. I've seen law firms whose approach to training new lawyers, fresh out of law school, is to hand them a bunch of case files and tell them to represent the associated clients, so yes, I think that's a big concern. I question where you could find enough spaces for these new apprentices to provide a meaningful number of openings for law students. I question whether they would provide decent compensation and reasonable hours, or if they would turn out to involve the type of exploitation that we've seen in nations that require "articling" for lawyers who want a bar admission -- long hours, little to no pay, but with the necessity of obtaining a position resulting fierce competition for any openings no matter how terrible the working conditions.

Thinking about some of the unpaid internships and exceedingly low paid associate positions I've seen advertised in recent years, it's difficult for me to believe that apprenticeships with private law firms will turn out to be a particularly valuable educational experience -- but what I would expect them to do is to reduce the number of jobs available for actual law school graduates. If you were to charge tuition for apprenticeships, funding them to the point that the apprentices could spend their time learning and studying rather than earning their keep through the mundane law firm tasks that they are likely to be assigned to perform, it's difficult to believe that they would cost less per year than law school.

The essays leave me not with the impression that we need or don't need apprenticeships. It leaves me with the impression that we need to reform legal education. Unfortunately, especially when I consider the manner in which the professors who oppose apprenticeships praise the current law school experience, I don't think that's at all likely to happen. More than that, if you want to solve the problem of there being too many law school graduates, far too many for the market to absorb, the first thing to do is reconsider the number of law schools, or at least the number of students they enroll -- but reduce those numbers and what will happen to those glorious buildings, glorious salaries, and gloriously low course loads?

About Those "Think Tanks"....

I'm a bit surprised, looking back, that I haven't written more about Stephen Moore. There's this piece, but given how often I've rolled my eyes at Moore's smiling regurgitation of hackneyed talking points and false statements that he has to know are wrong, I expected to find more. I guess, despite his ability to make me roll my eyes, he hasn't had much to say that was particularly interesting. You would think any self-respecting organization that falls under the umbrella term, "Think Tank", would have kicked Moore to the curb long ago... but he has a sinecure at the Heritage Foundation.

So what brings Moore to mind? The declaration by Miriam Pepper, editorial page editor of the Kansas City Star, that "I won’t be running anything else from Stephen Moore" due to his numerous factual errors. (I think it's fair to say that the statements were factually incorrect, but I'm not so sure that they should be called "errors".)
"You assume Heritage has edited these pieces too," Pepper says. "But, lesson learned. There will be no future Heritage pieces published that don’t get thorough factchecking."
She might assume Heritage is concerned that its fellows push accurate facts and information. But let's just say, Moore's been doing this type of thing for a long time....

Why is This Outrageous?

Michelle Bachmann has walked back from her usual craziness, and is reporting that the government plans to subject undocumented minor children to medical experimentation. I know, I know... at first blush it does sound crazy -- like she's one of the inmates running the asylum. But if you stop to think about it, these kids are the first carriers of Ebola to be located in North America. They have calves the size of cantaloupes. They suffer from an odd sort of depression or anxiety disorder that leaves them looking as sad as a bus full of YMCA campers. How is it not completely sane, at least by Republican standards, to suggest that the government might want to look into that?

[Insert smiley here for the sarcasm-impaired.]

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Think Tanks Follow the Money

Robert Samuelson states some facts about think tanks that, for some reason, aren't often voiced by elite columnists:
Most think tanks were once idea factories. They sponsored research from which policy proposals might flow. In the supply chain of political influence, their studies became the grist for politicians’ programs. But think-tank scholars didn’t lobby or campaign. Politicians and party groups did that. There was an unspoken, if murky, division of labor. This was [Stuart] Butler’s world.

But it’s disappearing, and many think tanks — liberal and conservative — have become more active politically. They are now message merchants, packaging and merchandizing agendas for a broader public. Heritage has long been aggressive in peddling its message and has become more so. In 2010, it created an affiliate — Heritage Action — that lobbied and mobilized grass-roots conservatives. In this world, I surmise, Butler’s role is diminished. By contrast, Brookings remains a bit more traditional....

What’s occurring is a subtle change to a major American institution. Heritage is not alone. To varying degrees, other think tanks face similar pressures. They will probably do less thinking and more politicking and self-promotion.
Probably? There's no probably about it.

Why would Brookings hire a right-wing ideologue like Stuart Butler? Why would Heritage hire Jim DeMint, a man nobody would mistake for a great thinker, as its leader? Follow the money.

I'm reminded of David Frum's (interesting, but flawed) novel, Patriots, in which a fictionalized think tank... I can't recall the name he used, but "The American Heritage Institute" might be about right... has relegated the old-timers who do traditional, nonpartisan research to its "founder's floor", while the newer "scholars" engage in little more than a free-for-all of politicking and money-grubbing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Charismatic Sociopath

Watching Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, depicting the scheming Frank Underwood, I can't help but wonder... how is it that the lead character of a show, a man who will literally lie, cheat and steal his way into the White House, maintains popularity with the show's fans? Spacey's character is unquestionably a sociopath or, if you prefer, afflicted with antisocial personality disorder. At times he strategically all-but-admits his sociopathy to other characters as a tool to win back their trust.

I've seen studies that indicate that people are quite good at spotting sociopaths, but if the sociopath is sufficiently charming will nonetheless allow themselves to succumb to his charms and confidence. Plenty of people saw through Bernie Madoff, but plenty more chose not to. I guess if you're smooth enough, charming enough, we can find a way to turn off our better judgment.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Call for Constant Parental Supervision

Ross Douthat tells us about the night he had to walk home from baseball practice,
When I was about 9 years old, I graduated to a Little League whose diamonds were a few miles from our house, in a neighborhood that got rougher after dark. After one practice finished early, I ended up as the last kid left with the coach, waiting in the gloaming while he grumbled, looked at his watch and finally left me — to wait or walk home, I’m not sure which.

I started walking. Halfway there, along a busy road, my father picked me up. He called my coach, as furious as you would expect a protective parent to be; the coach, who probably grew up having fistfights in that neighborhood, gave as good as he got; I finished the season in a different league.

Here are two things that didn’t happen. My (lawyer) father did not call the police and have the coach arrested for reckless endangerment of a minor. And nobody who saw me picking my way home alone thought to call the police on my parents, or to charge them with neglect for letting their child slip free of perfect safety for an hour.
Douthat should include the coach among those who didn't call the police on his parents. I'm tempted to be more than a bit uncharitable in my interpretation of what Douthat means by "rougher after dark", and I suspect he's dressing up a rather mundane story, but New Haven is a big place. Douthat should consider something more: What the police would have been likely to do if they were summoned. Odds are they would have tried to help young Ross find his way home. Also, as Douthat compares his own experience to those in the news of late, it seems worth noting that he doesn't accuse his furious father of overreacting.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument that our nation has become overprotective of children, but that's in no small part due to the fact that changes in our culture have led to a car culture, a culture in which you can drive down a street or even go to a park and find yourself quite alone. When I was a kid, I could walk from my home to the neighborhood park, and I would see other kids (and adults) on the sidewalk on the way there, and plenty of kids (and adults) at the park when I arrived. For much of the summer, one of my cities of residence would have staff at the park, organizing activities and supervising a splash pool. I don't think that human nature has changed, that fewer adults would help a kid in distress, but instead think that the problem is that fewer adults are around to provide that type of support to somebody else's unsupervised child. The biggest difference between a person driving by in a car, then and now, is that back then drivers didn't have cell phones.

Douthat lists a series of stories in which parents were arrested or had their children removed from their care after leaving them unsupervised, often for short periods of time, or even for matters outside of their control.
Some of these cases have been reported, but some are first-person accounts, and in some the conduct of neighbors and the police and social workers may be more defensible than the anecdote suggests.

But the pattern — a “criminalization of parenthood,” in the words of The Washington Post’s Radley Balko — still looks slightly nightmarish, and there are forces at work here that we should recognize, name and resist.
Douthat identifies what he believes to be the three primary causes of this pattern, upper class helicopter parenting producing a culture in which people expect children to be supervised at all times, media-driven anxiety from stories overstating dangers to children, and an erosion of community and social trust. I suspect that there is something to the first argument, as parents who have the privilege of always supervising their children, whether directly or through caregivers, can easily lose track of how difficult it is for other parents to accomplish a similar level of supervision. No doubt, the media's horror stories inflate public fears and make people wary of letting their children go out alone. An erosion of community and social trust, though? It fits with Douthat's preconceptions, but I don't see it. Instead I see a significant change in context, with our society shifting to indoor activities and its becoming alien to see an unsupervised child at play in a park. It's not particularly realistic to expect that a person, catching a glimpse of a child who may be lost, to park their car, approach the child and investigate before deciding what their next step should be, even if we assume the child won't be calling the police on her own cell phone due to "stranger danger" lessons.

Let's also not forget the angry parent. Just as Douthat's dad tore into his coach with a criticism that must have amounted to, "How dare you leave the child (who we forgot to pick up) alone to find his way home after practice?" How many passersby want to encounter the angry parent who, upon seeing them approach a child who seemed to be unattended, approaches with a belligerent, "How dare you!" How many store owners, finding children wandering unsupervised in their aisles, want to take the risk of having the children wait in their offices while they try to track down parents? Particularly with the exaggerated but accepted "stranger danger" threat, and with the disproportionate anger that can come from some parents even when it was their own negligence that necessitated stranger involvement, it's no small wonder that some people choose to notify the police.

The problem at that point, also, is less that the police were notified, and more that prosecutors are willing to authorize charges over parental mistakes that cause no harm, where a stern lecture might suffice. And in that context, once again, we have a significant media role -- "Protective services was called about this child on three separate occasions, but did nothing...." Nobody wants to be the subject of that sort of headline, so the reflex has switched from a friendly drop-off and perhaps a warning about providing proper supervision to the initiation of legal proceedings.

Moving back to the complexity, for a moment, sometimes at the root of these cases you will find either that the reason for court intervention is more complicated than a news media sound bite might suggest, or can find another case that suggests why the police or a prosecutor don't find an act to be as harmless as the media coverage suggests. Leaving a "4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day" may not pose a danger that the child will die from exposure to heat, but cars are not safe playgrounds for children. You'll find plenty of stories about near-misses and injuries resulting from a child's shifting a parked car into neutral or releasing a hand brake and, although car cigarette lighters are now something of a rarity, of children injuring themselves with items left inside the car.

I'm also reminded of a time when one of my clients decided to bring his girlfriend's four-year-old child to court, on a date that he expected to be sentenced to jail. The judge drew the conclusion that the child was present as an insurance policy, inferring that the defendant thought he might not be sent to jail if that meant that somebody else would have to take care of the child. The judge sentenced the defendant to jail and was prepared to call protective services. I offered to try to find the child's mother and, after several hours and the leaving of countless messages, while ultimately delivering the child to his grandmother, was not particularly impressed that I had done the child any great favor by keeping protective services out of his situation. As my experience with that type of case has expanded, I would be surprised if the child had not already been the subject of a protective services investigation. I'll say this: He was a remarkably well-behaved child who handled the situation very well, and he deserved a better life than the one he has likely since experienced.

Douthat notes that work requirements for welfare recipients can result in contexts in which "a single mother [is] behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school". Douthat's childhood was apparently sufficiently sheltered that he is not aware that most single mothers are neither on welfare nor working fast food jobs, but that aside he raises a fair observation about the inherent tension within Republican views on the subject:
This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.
And the solution is.... to be continued? What an unfortunate moment for Douthat to have run out of space for his column.

If you want a culture in which children can play in public, walk to school, take urban public transportation and the like, without parental supervision and without raising any concerns or eyebrows, you need to focus less on nebulous notions of "community and social trust", and focus much more on getting a population of kids and parents back on the streets such that it's not unusual for a child (of appropriate age and maturity) to engage in public activities without supervision, and where there's a natural population of people on the streets and in the parks who will react to any danger the child might face. Scolding people for not putting their lives on hold to investigate a child's status before notifying the police is not an approach that is likely to solve anything. With the manner in which our society has evolved to one of indoor activities and empty public spaces, I'm not sure that any generation of kids in the foreseeable future is going to enjoy the sort of liberty I had as a child, to go to a park, walk to school, ride my bicycle around town, take public transportation and the like, without any thought of parental supervision.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Obamacare Works, Period

The other day, Reihan Salam was on Real Time, but didn't manage to air all of his anti-Obamacare tropes before the host switched to a different subject. One he did manage to voice is the suggestion that the 74% of Republicans who like their benefits under their PPACA health insurance policies are wrong. I'm not sure how the logic of that argument works, as they either like their benefits or they don't. Perhaps he means that they're wrong in principle, as they should instead prefer the status quo ante or some unidentified alternative program, but endorsing that position would suggest that Salam doesn't think the program represents good policy even if it provides people with what they assert to be good health insurance coverage.

Salam did suggest that the only reason Obamacare is working is because it is subsidized. In a sense that's true, as it is the subsidies that help create the volume of enrollees necessary to create the large risk pools that allow the program to work, enrolling all applicants without regard to preexisting conditions. But outside of that narrow context, Salam is wrong. As somebody who has purchased a PPACA policy without a subsidy, I can attest that I was able to choose and enjoy a policy that provides coverage superior to anything I was able to purchase as an individual consumer prior to the Act's effective date, and that the price of the policy was reasonable even without a subsidy. The manner in which the PPACA's policies are priced for dependents allowed me to obtain coverage comparable to that which I had previously received through COBRA but at a lower price.

Although the pre-PPACA policy I had purchased to cover the period between the expiration of my COBRA eligibility and January 1, 2014, cost less than my PPACA-compliant policy, it also offered far less. I also didn't have to try to remember years of detailed medical information which the insurance company could use to find pretextual reasons to increase my rates or deny care. I recognize that many Republicans, perhaps including Salam, believe that having inadequate health insurance coverage is a feature, not a bug, forcing people to pay a greater portion or all of the cost of certain basic care, mental health care, addiction treatment and the like, and that the ideal health insurance policy involves a HSA and only catastrophic insurance coverage, I would have a greater appreciation for that argument if an appreciable number of its advocates were willing to walk the walk -- legislate or contract away their own health insurance benefits for the inadequate coverage they wish to foist off on the rest of the country.

Salam suggested that there is inequity in having a multi-tiered health insurance system, with Medicare being less attractive than PPACA plans, which he asserted are less attractive than employer-sponsored plans. It's important to note that I've seen employer-sponsored plans that are far less attractive than most plans available under the PPACA, and the plan I purchased was quite comparable to the employer-sponsored plan I had been continuing through COBRA, so I don't find his argument of inequity between employer-sponsored plans and PPACA plans to be particularly compelling. As for Medicare offering less than private health insurance, I see no evidence that the Republican Party at large views that as a problem that needs to be fixed. A party whose governors have largely chosen to grandstand, harming their states and large numbers of their constituents by refusing to expand Medicaid. Inequities exist, but it's not clear that we should prioritize their elimination over other healthcare reforms, or even that the people want inequities removed as opposed to the establishment of a reasonable minimum for what health insurance plans must offer.

Typical Republican alternatives to the PPACA have involved either throwing everybody into the individual market, with low-coverage catastrophic insurance and HSAs, or a voucher system where (if you qualify) you get a voucher or tax credit with which you are to pay for your insurance and fund your uninsured care. Those proposals bring back some of the worst aspects of the former system, at best foisting those previously deemed uninsurable or who would face staggering insurance costs due to pre-existing conditions into government programs -- after all, why should we expect health insurance companies insure sick people when that cost can be borne by the taxpayer? To the extent that the Republicans attempt to bridge the gap between the Gingrich-style plans and the PPACA, including large risk pools and exchanges, but most notably preventing insurance companies from raising premiums for people with pre-existing conditions, the more necessary it becomes to impose some form of mandate -- and even if you automatically enroll people in insurance while using the voucher or subsidy they left unused, such that you can argue that "It's not a mandate", somebody has to foot the bill.

On the whole, Salam is one of the more honest and thoughtful commentators on the Republican side. I would like to see him address the issue of health care in light of his abilities. We can start with the fact that there is no actual Republican health insurance reform that is being seriously advanced within the party. We can add to that, the fact that reforms that will shake the system are likely to cause people to lose their current insurance, whether that occurs abruptly or as a new policy is phased in. In other words, unless the Republican Party wants to take an enormous political risk that implicates all of its anti-Obamacare rhetoric, we're looking at incremental reforms, not the reinvention of health insurance and the healthcare market. Within that context, what reform ideas would Salam propose that have any chance of getting passed by the Republican majority in the House, let alone becoming law? If the answer is, "None", then he's reinforcing what many, and probably most supporters of the PPACA already acknowledge -- as flawed as the law may be, it's the best law that could get through Congress.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sometimes, When Everybody Thinks Your Analysis is Bad....

...It's because your work actually is bad.

I haven't paid any particular attention to The Independent's analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but this self-serving headline caught my eye: When both Palestinians and Israelis think we are biased, we must be doing something right. While it is true that partisans will rarely be satisfied with objective coverage of an issue that is close to their hearts, being attacked from both sides sometimes truly means that your coverage is inadequate or incompetent. If you want to convince the partisans that your position is balanced, it makes little sense to predicate your argument with a claim that is untrue on its face.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Too Many Desperate Law School Grads Spoil the Broth....

I learned something interesting from an executive from a large health care organization, the other day. She receives 200-300 job applications for any available position within her organization -- not much of a surprise given the economy and the fact that it's an attractive employer. But she indicated also that, for a lot of positions, they are flooded with applications from recent law school graduates -- to the point that hitting the entry for "law school" toward the top of somebody's résumé results in a near-automatic rejection of the application. (Odds are that the initial screening is done by computer....) It's not that a law school graduate with an appropriate job history or qualifications couldn't do some of the posted jobs, or couldn't learn the position over time. It's that so many desperate law grads are applying for the jobs that hitting a reference to law school or a "J.D." suggests that there's a very low possibility that the candidate is qualified for the position as posted.

No matter what you hear from people who claim that the law degree is a flexible degree that allows you do do more than practice law, unless you have confirmed both that it's true for the industry in which you hope to work and that the industry is hiring recent law grads, don't believe it -- and if you find such an industry, consider how small it is and how few graduates they hire before choosing law school as a path to employment. If you're interested in working in an industry that does not regularly hire people with law degrees, find out what degrees they prefer and get one of those degrees instead of a J.D.

I'm not optimistic about the future of the legal profession, or the potential for law school graduates who aren't able (or aren't willing) to pursue BigLaw careers to find remunerative work in smaller legal practices. Some will manage to do so, either starting their own firms or finding their way into legal jobs that allow them to create a foundation for later promotion or lateral moves. But from what I see, despite the reduced numbers of students attending law school, the future of the profession doesn't look particularly bright -- and if you're not going to end up working in law, in my opinion for most fields your three years of law school are either going to be a neutral or a detriment.