Archive for the ‘Law school’ Category

Is the bar exam pseudoscientific?

July 9, 2013

Ah, July. The sun is shining, the flowers are all in bloom, it is a time of vacation and warm beer, a time where slower clocks strike happier hours… except for the thousands of recent and not-so-recent law school graduates (and congratulations to all of y’all) around the country who locked in libraries studying for the Multistate Bar Exam and, more or less universally, at least one state’s version of that test. The MBE and its state equivalents are, for first-time takers, required in most jurisdictions to get the right to practice law in that jurisdiction (though once you’ve passed the bar in one state, you can often gain admission to the bar of another state by motion instead of by examination), which is to say, passing the bar the first time around is of the utmost importance to law school graduates. The oncoming train of massive student loan payments, measured against the time that is lost and the new debt that is incurred in preparation for the MBE, have even led some states to call for the abolition of the bar exam, or at least, to let law school students take it before graduating. 

The bar prep process is a long and arduous one; in a way, the entirety of law school is a form of bar prep. Institutions both public and private run bar preparation courses that can run students thousands of dollars, and the fees for the exam itself, just for the application to take the bar, put hundreds of dollars on top of that – fees that you don’t get back if you fail. But what is it all for?

Ostensibly, the goal of the bar exam is to ensure that only competent practitioners are able to advertise and provide their services, under the auspices of the National and the fifty state Bar Associations. The goal seems worthy enough to me – I rather enjoy the prospect of not competing with incompetents, and enjoying at bar association meetings only the mighty company of titans of legal acumens. Except, of course, that such is not the case. Cretins abound in the legal profession, as any lawyer, cretinous ones included, will tell you, and the ranks of the MBE’s failure include powerful career success stories  ranging from Kathleen Sullivan and John F. Kennedy to Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton. Evidence both anecdotal and empirical such as the success stories cited above show it to be plainly false that the MBE screens out bad lawyers and admits only good ones.

There is shockingly little data available on whether or not the MBE or any particular state bar exam actually correlates with career success, though what data does exist shows a sort of self-serving prophecy at work: given that bar exam failure delays the start of a career by many months until the next exam date, and that no law firm has any reason to hire someone who has not passed the bar, bar exam passage really does have some correlation with career success. So it seems unsurprising that advocates for the MBE could say that MBE success accurately predicts a certain level of career success; career success isn’t even possible until MBE success is had!

What should be more troubling for any consideration of the MBE is that failure is statistically a greater affliction of the non-white and the non-male than for the white and the male. I have a difficult time imagining any reasons of any academic or jurisprudential virtue that  would cause a supposed test of legal competence to disproportionately disqualify those who are merely demographically different from the last generation’s lawyers. Perhaps, however, since the MBE reflects systemic problems in American law itself, problems that build institutional barriers to non-whites and non-males.

But this, too, is empirically known to be untrue, since the available evidence suggests that MBE passage rates has remarkably little to do with what is actually taught at law schools. Unless we are really willing to swallow the proposition that more is taught in eight-week bar prep crash courses than in the entirety of the rest of law school, this I think raises the troubling possibility that the MBE, whose success does correlate strongly with LSAT scores though the LSAT has nothing at all to do with the law according to a study cited above, is actually a measure of the kind of intelligence that the LSAT itself measures.

The LSAT does a remarkable job of predicting law school performance. Law school performance strongly predicts bar exam results (along with gender and race). Gender and race track to LSAT scores almost precisely as well as they do for the MBE. Yet while the MBE tracks well to overall law school performance, it does not track well to what one actually studies in law school – whether one studies bar-intensive subjects like contracts and constitutional law or more esoteric bar-unfriendly courses like entertainment law or the laws of war does not have a significant impact on MBE performance. So what is the MBE actually measuring? Is it measuring anything other than general “intelligence” where “intelligence” is defined as “an ability to succeed in law school?”

And do we want lawyers who are good at law school, but whose actual abilities to be lawyers are, as a statistical fact about the MBE, completely unknown?

Stranger still, the MBE is basically a gatekeeper to state and national Bar Association membership – yet those organizations do not, strictly speaking, exist to discipline or screen out bad lawyers, but rather unethical lawyers. Bar associations technically have no jurisdiction whatsoever, but as a practical matter they are the ethicists and comptrollers of the legal profession; bar associations punish for accounting shenanigans and violations of ethical rules, but only legislatures can properly create actual crimes, even where the legal profession is concerned. And genuine incompetence is actionable only by bar associations when it amounts to a matter of ethics, when it would actually be immoral to let a person continue to practice based on a history of misrepresentations or false promises, not on how many cases somebody has won or lost. So the MBE supposedly (but I think, as I’ve shown, falsely) promises to screen incompetent lawyers from entry into an organization that has no power whatsoever to punish lawyers for general incompetence.

Based on the evidence that I’ve prevented here, the multistate bar exam is by many relevant measures pseudoscientific. It is circular and self-fulfilling insofar as the success it measures is governed by success on the test itself. It claims to be a measure of competence at law but has statistically significant gaps in success based on factors that are utterly irrelevant to legal competence, such as gender and race. It tests something that bar associations have no technical ability to even control for post-passage, which is actual success. And yet as we speak, there are thousands of young Americans around the country cramming for it as if (because?) their careers depended on it. Quality controls of are the utmost importance in the legal profession, but unfortunately, we have too many good reasons to suspect that the MBE is not even giving us that.


On Christian law schools

January 23, 2013

A planned Canadian law school at Trinity Western University has come under fire for a curious understatement of the Bible’s views on homosexuality. In what I understand to be a potential violation of Canadian human rights law, Trinity Western proposes to maintain, at Canada’s very first Christian law school, a behavior code that forbids students from, among other things, “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of between a man and a woman.

It shouldn’t be surprising that America already has a few Christian-themed law schools, the most famous of which probably is Regent University. This rigorous 3-year program, founded to spread “Christian leadership” throughout America, has historically woefully underperformed on bar passage and stunningly merely broke even with the Virginia state average last year. Some lures of attending Regent include a robust alumni network of Grand Inquisitors for the Grand Ole Party.

And Regent is actually one of the best Christian law schools around. California’s best Christian law school achieved a bar passage rate of 38.8% over the last five years, and all of the unaccredited Christian schools mentioned in that study have bar passage rates ranging from 0% to the 38.8% figure. The Christian law schools that aren’t busy cooking the books instead just come right out and charge you first-tier rates for last-tier lifetime income returns and last-tier job placement – lucky for all the gay students who can’t go to Liberty University.

I think that the main goal of law schools, which is to teach its students the law in a way that makes them fit to represent and advise other people, is fundamentally at odds with Christianity for a number of reasons. One of them is that Christianity has never had a good relationship with education in America. From Scopes to Dover, Christians have opposed honest, accurate science education where it contradicts their scriptures. Likewise with history, especially where it concerns the principles of religious liberty and secular democracy.

I can’t imagine how the law could be any different, especially since Christianity’s aggression upon American education is so entwined with the spectacular legal battles that it has been losing almost since the beginning. How could a Christian Constitutional law professor accurately describe the last fifty years of 1st Amendment jurisprudence without completely dispiriting any aspiring young Christian lawyer who envisions the Christian America promised him by Liberty University or Ave Maria? How is a Christian law school student supposed to get a good understanding of the theories of punishment when they’ve been told all their lives that all wrong-doing is pre-forgiven, that right and wrong don’t matter if you apologize to the right judge?

The fact is that the main problem is that religious was our first attempt at law as much as it was our first attempt at philosophy, and the law has moved on. Society has decided that it is no longer in our best interest to forbid homosexuals from full participation in the economy. Society has decided that apology does not waive crimes. We’ve taken the power of sanctuary from the Church and given it to embassies. We no longer rally nations by papal bull, we do it by international covenant. Churches can no longer freely invalidate marriages or contracts. We don’t permit the Levitical sale of slaves. We now treat the very things God ordered the Israelites to do as war crimes.

A Christian law school is an Apothecary Medical School, it is an Astrological Astronomy School, it is a British government degree granted by druids. Christianity is not just a freewheeling worldview that can be easily imposed upon any body of knowledge – Christianity and its Jewish predecessor texts are themselves a legal theory. Christianity is a theory of justice which says that a third party can forgive disputes between two others on his own behalf. Christianity is a legal theory which says that the law was frozen in place towards the end of the 1st century AD and that anything further is a falling-away. Christianity is a legal theory which says that there are no sovereigns on Earth, only ethereal ones.

I don’t mean to say that I think that Christian law schools teach Old Testament law. What I think is that Christian law schools stem from an intellectual milieu which holds that everything different about American law (or Canadian law) and Biblical law is an aberration. This is the problem. This is why you will never get good results from such a university.

So you’re thinking about applying to law school: tips for new applicants and what to do when you get there

January 16, 2013

Ah, January. A new year, a new crop of thousands of college students entering their final semester, and with them, a new crop of of law school applicants. With law school applications plummeting and law schools scrambling to keep quality up and price down-ish, after a year-long barrage of articles about what a terrible return you get on your law school investment, and deans making just shy of a million a year at unranked schools, a down legal job market, the rise of legal self-help firms like legalzoom and rocketlawyer, the sudden combustion of a couple of huge law firms over the last few years, plus a lifetime of hearing jokes about what a bunch of jackasses lawyers are, you’re still apparently thinking about applying to law school!

Good call. It’s a good investment, graduate school loans are on better terms now than they have been in years, the legal job market is improving, the online legal self-help competition everyone was worried about swamping the industry is self-destructing, starting salaries for recent grads are up to $160,000 at half of BigLaw, and best of all, with applications (and average accepted LSAT scores) down, the competition you’re being graded against is dumber than it has been in years. 

So, you’re going to get a lot of swell tips about applications ranging from the obvious (make sure it’s a school you want to go to before going to it) to the impossibly, ridiculously, frankly stupidly obvious (make sure you can afford the first semester’s tuition before you go to your first class), to the false (pad your application with extracurriculers, internships, etc.). 

The fact is that the application process is very simple. Most schools use a metric for admissions that weighs your LSAT score against your GPA at a 2:1 ratio, uses extracurriculers as a tie-breaker, and requires recommendations only to prove that at least two adults on the planet like you. So don’t sweat the application.

But sweat the shit out of the LSAT.

It’s basically a mix of logic, argumentation, and reading comprehension, and the best thing that you can do to prepare for it is to take a class in formal logic, and then get an A in it. I used formal logic notation on the LSATs so much it felt like I was cheating, and I was very happy with the score. But other than that, a Kaplan LSAT course is about as helpful as getting a good night’s sleep the night before the test – which is to say, very, very helpful. Take the Kaplan course if you can afford it, otherwise get the Princeton Review books or similar book series, and use them. Then take the test on a fullish stomach after a restful sleep. Be awake for at least two hours before the test.

And then, congratulations – you’re a law school student.

So what do you do when you get to law school? Law school is something I’ve done. I’ve had semesters on Dean’s list. I’ve bombed tests and aced them. I’ve had friends self-destruct and had friends transfer into the Ivy League. There’s a lot of ways to do law school wrong, and a few ways to do it right. You’re going to get a lot of advice about how to do law school right, and I’m sure most of it is good advice, but it isn’t complete advice. There are some things so obvious that you wouldn’t think you’d have to say it, but apparently, after years in school, I’ve learned that you actually do. To wit (these are all pieces of advice I’ve seen other people at law school not follow):

  • Don’t do a ton of blow, all the time, at school.
  • Don’t go to class drunk.
  • Don’t take a final drunk.
  • Don’t tell everyone you know how much more practical experience you have than they do owing to your extensive criminal record.
  • Do your reading.
  • If you sit down to the final and really, truly, honestly know that you’re fucked beyond belief, just get up and leave. Don’t then come back, start yelling, sweep things off of peoples’ desks, have to get physically ejected from the building, then never be seen or heard from again.
  • Join the night classes and get a day job. It’s one extra year of school to look ten times more impressive to… everyone, including employers.
  • Seriously, just do your goddamn reading.
  • Brief smarter, not harder.
  • That bullshit-sounding advice you hear about networking is all good advice, and if anything, it’s understated.
  • Stay on top of your goddamn reading.
  • Don’t do adderall unless you have a prescription.
  • Don’t sell adderall to your classmates unless you’re a pharmacist and they have a prescription.
  • Don’t join the student government then tell too many people about that one time you ran from an undercover cop who saw you smoking a joint because you had a half-dozen unprescribed adderall pills in your pocket.
  • Don’t start a fight with your torts professor where, long story short, you’re not allowed to email her anymore.
  • The Socratic method is only scary if you don’t do your reading.
  • Law school is not an extension of college.
  • Law school is a trade school. Immerse yourself in your trade. Stay up-to-date on current events in the law. Spend your free time reading classics of law or about famous lawyers. Talk about it. Blog about it. Argue about it. Yell about it. Lecture people who know less about it than you do. Breathe it in, breathe it out. You don’t have to love what you do, but you’re at a point in your life where you have to know a lot about what you do.

Basically, don’t be an idiot, and do your work – advice you shouldn’t have to give that everybody needs to hear.