No, this isn't another critique of the Ph.D./postdoc academic Ponzi scheme. Instead, I'm summarizing the situation of many newly minted lawyers, as reported in a Washington Post review of a new book entitled Failing Law Schools. The author, Brian Tamanaha, is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Presumably, he knows what he's talking about when he writes, (quoted by reviewer Charles Lane), "Many law professors at many law schools across the country are selling a degree that they would not recommend to people close to them."
That too has a familiar ring.
I'm not claiming that the details of the law school and graduate school situations are identical. Law students generally pay their own way to their degrees, for one thing, many taking on debts that can range up to $100,000 to cover tuition costs that have risen four- to six-fold in the last quarter century. But few law graduates can land the lucrative corporate law firm jobs that would allow them to retire such crippling debts before their own retirement, and many graduates can't find a career-oriented legal job at all. Thousands, therefore, find their financial futures seriously clouded before their work lives have even begun. "Some law schools have been caught luring students with inflated post-graduation employment statistics," writes Lane, paraphrasing Tamanaha. Being lawyers, some disappointed law graduates have brought lawsuits against schools they feel deceived them.
No, this isn't exactly the same thing as a system that uses students and "trainees" as cheap labor in professors' labs through a decade of grad school and postdoc penury on the way to not getting the job they had hoped for. But, it seems to me, it's a similar-enough example of cynical bait-and-switch.
Here's one very suggestive link between the cases. A major reason that Tamanaha gives for the explosion is tuition costs, Lane writes, is the increasing emphasis by law schools on faculty research as a way to enhance institutional prestige. This, of course, means that faculty members spend less time teaching, and since this research is generally supported by the law school rather than by outside federal money, it makes instruction more expensive.
There's another, much more fundamental similarity. "Law school effectively transfers money from students to relatively well-to-do professors," Tamanaha writes, quoted by Lane. This happens "via student-loan debt--...ultimately guaranteed by federal taxpayers" and not, as in science, by paying low wages to the students and "trainees" who do the work on professors' research grants (which not incidentally are supplied by those same taxpayers). But this difference is less important than a core similarity: In neither case are universities acting for the benefit of the aspiring young people whose present and future welfare is the ostensible reason academic institutions exist in the first place. Rather, they are manipulating the hopes and dreams of those young people to build and maintain the careers of comfortably situated senior academics. It's likely, I think, that few of the faculty who participate in the exploitation think of it this way, so this probably isn't (in most cases) a matter of overt and direct exploitation. But that doesn't make the system any less exploitative.
I doubt that Prof. Tamahana's book, which Lane terms "remarkable," will enhance his popularity among his faculty colleagues any more than economist Paula Stephan's recent, excellent examination of the dark side of research funding, How Economics Shapes Science, appears to have won over the majority of science professors, or the revelations in Hermanowicz's book Lives in Science have inspired all professors to level with prospective grad students about career prospects. But if Failing Law Schools is anywhere near as good and revealing as Lane suggests--I have only read the review)--it adds another informed and persuasive voice to those calling for reform of the way universities treat the young people who entrust to them their futures, hopes, and dreams.