THE BLOG

American Law Schools and the Psychology of Cyber-Hysteria

12/31/2013 11:56 am ET | Updated Mar 02, 2014
  • Brian Leiter Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago

Previously, I wrote about how the steep decline in applications to law schools was an unsurprising "consumer" response to the downturn in the legal sector in the wake of the financial crisis and the recognition that student debt was no longer dischargeable in bankruptcy. What was surprising, however, was the new "meme" that took hold in cyberspace: this economic catastrophe was the fault of law schools and law professors. The psychology of this "meme" is our topic here.

In 1887, the philosopher Nietzsche observed that,

Every sufferer instinctively looks for a cause of its distress, more exactly, for a culprit, even more precisely for a guilty culprit who is receptive to distress--in short, for a living being upon whom he can release his emotions, actually or in effigy, on some pretext or other; because the release of emotions is the greatest attempt at relief, or should I say, anaestheticizing on the part of the sufferer.

His hypothesis -- that those suffering look for someone to blame in order to anaesthetize their pain -- is now well-supported by work in empirical psychology.

There is, undoubtedly, considerable suffering among recent law school graduates: unemployment, jobs lost, crushing debts. Some unhappy law graduates have taken to the Internet in search of an explanation for the economic catastrophe they find themselves in. They quickly settled on an "explanation," a "guilty culprit": law schools, by presenting misleadingly optimistic employment data, had induced innocents to enroll who never would have gone to law school. "Law school is a scam," they declared.

Lawsuits by victims of this alleged "scam" have, in fact, been filed around the country, but courts have so far uniformly repudiated their theory about the culprits, noting the "elephant in the room": the global recession of 2008. Still, websites proliferate in which the victims of this alleged scam gather to denounce law school, and law professors. Here is a typical outburst:

My life was ruined by my utterly foolish decision to go to law school. I will regret it to my grave. I cannot afford housing, a car, food, or to support a family because of my law school debt. I wish nothing but the absolute worst to everyone who profits from the legal education system. They are liars, thieves, and deceptive pigs ... Tens of thousands of lives are destroyed each year so law professors, deans, and other shills can earn $200,000+ (often, much higher). They can burn in hell.

"Every sufferer instinctively looks for a cause of its distress, more exactly, for a culprit... a living being upon whom he can release his emotions, actually or in effigy, on some pretext or other." The pretexts do not need to be very plausible, either: if someone went to law school, and that turned out badly, then someone must be to blame, and preferably "a living being upon whom he can release his emotions." Indeed, anyone who disputes this new cyber-orthodoxy about the culpability of law professors is subjected to vicious defamation and harassment.

In one case, an umemployed law school graduate has taken to posting photos of excrement next to law schools he deems unworthy of existing (most!) and then denounces law school faculty (by name) as "pigs," "cockroaches" and "pussies." In another case, a lawyer in Chicago, a man in his mid-40s, has devoted hundreds of hours to blogs and chatrooms where he ridicules law review articles mainly by minority and female law professors -- so far, under a pseudonym, though one victim of his harassment has filed an ethics complaint with the Illinois Bar.

The cyber-hysteria about law schools is not only tediously repetitive, it is immune to facts or evidence. That became clear last summer when Michael Simkovic, a law professor, and Frank McIntyre, a labor economist, conducted the first systematic study of economic outcomes for those with a JD compared to students with similar credentials who only earned a B.A. The results were unambiguous: students who earned a J.D. earned substantially more than their B.A. counterparts at almost every level of the income distribution; even the 25th percentile earners fared better. The cyber-mob counseled against earning a J.D. without offering any other guidance; yet the best evidence on offer, from Professors Simkovic and McIntyre, demonstrated that a J.D. was a good financial investment for the vast majority over the long term.

The cyber-response to this analysis was astonishing: those committed to the proposition that law schools were wicked, the cause of their economic misfortune, could not countenance that the facts were otherwise. Professor Simkovic responded systematically and calmly to the attacks over a period of several weeks, demonstrating the mistakes and errors underlying every objection to their research. None of this had any effect on the cyber-hysteria. Why?

A large body of research -- usefully summarized here -- shows that when like-minded individuals congregate and talk only with each other, their positions become more extreme, and even contrary evidence is then interpreted as confirming the correctness of the most extreme opinions. We have seen this with the Republican Party, which, as Thomas Mann (of the liberal Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) have noted, is now "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." So, too, with the on-line critics of law schools: facts that do not comport with their ideology ("law school is a scam") are deemed not to be facts, and critics of the hysteria are subjected to relentless abuse and defamation.

The analogy with the current extremism of the Republican Party goes further. It has always been a staple of Republican ideology that systemic problems are attributable to individual malfeasance and should be addressed by individual charity. The globalization of legal services, increased competition among legal service providers, the economic catastrophe of 2008 and the recession in the legal services market: these systemic events are now blamed on individual actions by law school deans and professors, and cyber-critics, in turn,fault them for having failed to be charitable by demanding higher teaching loads and lower salaries.

If, as The National Jurist predicts, we are only a couple of years away from an equilibrium in the market between jobs and new law school graduates, then the irrational cyber-hysteria about law schools will soon be a thing of the past. The suffering that has brought it on, however, remains real, and soon Congress will need to take up debt relief for a generation of students caught in the vise of an economic catastrophe.