“Legal Asylum: A Comedy” – A Hilarious Satire of the Cutthroat World of Law Schools
Legal Asylum: A Comedy is a very funny book. Written by Stanford Law Professor Paul Goldstein, it’s a hilarious takedown of the lengths to which a law school will go to improve its US News and World Report ranking. Legal Asylum is a work of fiction, but like satires, it hits very close to home. It’s a fun, fast read that leaves you laughing and yet cringing at how very close to true (and maybe even true) it is.
There Can Only Be One
You have to have a sense of humor about law school rankings. Only one law school can be number one and so on down the very long line (occasionally there are ties) to the unranked schools (I graduated from one of those). Combat to improve rankings (and I graduated law school before rankings even existed) is fierce.
In this book, a hopefully fictional state law school and its hopefully fictional cast of characters, from the dean on down to the mailroom clerk, engage in all kinds of activities, not to mention schemes and subterfuge (any ethical issues?), to impress the ABA accreditation committee on its site visit and to pole vault the law school into the Top Five law school rankings. Every character is off-kilter, which is one reason why I found the book so funny.
The ABA site visits prompts scurrying by administration and faculty to show the law school in its best possible light. Dean Elspeth Flowers notes, “After all, what college graduate in his right mind would invest $200,000 and the next three years of his life in a berth on a ship that is not only leaky, but sinking?”
The Main Players
Dean Flowers wants the reputational glory a top ranking will give to State, but she is even more ambitious for her own career aspirations. She does almost anything and everything to propel her to her next goal: a seat on the United States Supreme Court. She’s ruthless, devious, not above any and all chicanery that will get her what she wants.
Associate Dean Jimmy Fleenor faces an ethical conundrum about the site visit and Dean Elspeth’s tactics and attitude toward faculty, students, and even the members of the ABA site visitation committee. He asks her whether it’s worth it to cheat and lie to get into the Top Five. Dean Flowers tells Fleenor to give his full attention to the site visit, while she will take care of other details. He got his answer.
The mailroom clerk, Wendell Ward, is much more than just a mailroom clerk, and he uses his knowledge about everyone on the faculty and all the goings-on to forge his own path while shaking down a Chinese investor who wants to use State to establish a law school in China.
Do you learn how to practice law in law school? One member of ABA site visit team says that “…so far I haven’t found one who seems to have the slightest interest in preparing your students for the practice of law.” Dean Flowers comments “…With one exception, there was not a member of her faculty who wouldn’t pee his or her pants at the prospect of actually facing a client or arguing a case.” The teaching methods of State’s faculty are different and even off the wall.
The law school handles the tricky issue of full-time employment for its graduates, something that the ABA looks at very closely. State requires that every single position, whether file clerk, groundskeepers, or messengers, must have a law degree for qualification. The result? One hundred percent of State’s law students are employed, which gives State a perfect score with the ABA. Moreover, the Dean decides that every unemployed graduate would be hired as a research and writing instructor for the incoming first year class.
State lets law students grade their own papers and exams. However, the students still must grade to five decimal places. State also turns an essential faculty requirement on its head: it’s publish and perish. The “and” is not a typo. The rationale is that since plagiarism is all around, it’s safer not to publish.
Goldstein takes aim at the Socratic Method. Associate Dean Fleenor tells one member of the site visit committee that “Socrates would have swallowed the hemlock all on his own if he ever saw what law teachers call the Socratic method. There’s only one way for us to graduate students who think like lawyers, and that’s to admit students who already think like lawyers and then make sure we do as little as possible to ruin them. And we do that by admitting the smartest students we can with the highest LSATs we can.” (In a pilot project, Harvard will start accepting the GRE as well as the LSAT.)
The funniest part of the book is how State treats its night law school students, a subject that no one in law school academia likes to talk about. Anyone who says that there are no class distinctions in law schools, let alone the legal profession, has only to look at the way law students are viewed, depending upon where they graduated. Even more so is the distinction between full-time day students and those students who go to law school at night.
The Dean of Special Projects, Alex Coyle, tells a site visit committee member the truism about night law schools: they “…bring in more money than the day division. No scholarships. Everyone here pays for his seat with hard cash.” Night law school graduates know that all too well. Complications arise when State’s night law school surfaces, literally, from its underground bunker.
The ultimate question in this hilarious book is why is it important to be ranked at all? I’m sure law school faculty, the Am Law 200, and others will have all kinds of answers to this question. However, while law school rankings may well dictate which graduates get the plum positions in law practice and academia, the truth is that most of the lawyers in this country practice as solos or in small firms where pedigree (e.g. what law school you graduated from and whether day or night) is meaningless. Most clients could care less about where you went to law school. They care about your ability to solve their problems.
This story is the antithesis of The Paper Chase.
Goldstein slaughters a lot of sacred cows in this fun romp through law school academia, but just like any other satire, it cuts very close to the bone.