BY CHRIS SZABLA
In a letter sent in November to Dean Kagan and other law school heads across the country, consumer advocate and oft-presidential candidate Ralph Nader ’58 posed critical questions about American law schools’ career services policies, their choice of preferred lenders of student loans, and their high tuition rates.
In the course of the letter, co-authored with attorney Oliver Hall, and in subsequent comments made to the Record, Nader suggested that law schools were hostage to the interests of major donors and corporate interests, and were neither doing enough to serve students nor explore their own role in society. In particular, he claimed, they were failing to examine whether they serve the cause of justice. Nader and Hall said that they hoped “to initiate a much-needed dialogue about the role law schools play in a legal profession increasingly dominated by corporate law firms”. Students, their letter states, are under immense financial pressure to accept lucrative opportunities from firms, and law schools need to take steps to ensure that they are adequately informed and can choose between these firms and other opportunities.
The letter suggests that law schools or student groups send inquiries to firms with questions relating to “the nature of the firms’ clientele, advocacy tactics, the definition of their pro bono practice, the range of professional conscience afforded associates to decline assignments without retribution, and whether the firms or their partners had been sanctioned for legal and ethical violations.” It also suggests that information from public interest groups and investigative journalists could inform student choices as well.
Providing an example of what happens when students are misinformed about the character of a firm and the nature of its actual work, Nader alleged that a Pennsylvania law firm, Reed Smith, was involved in vote rigging. The firm, he said, had made an effort to get names disqualified from a petition. In addition, the firm was actively representing several of the state Supreme Court justices it was arguing this case in front of. The firm even claimed, he said, that all this constituted “pro bono” work.
The other issue addressed by Nader’s letter is financial pressure on law students. This stemmed in part from lenders who “exploit” students, particularly those involved in the recent student loan scandals. The letter recommends that universities rank lenders based on how favorable their terms are to students, forcing lenders to compete for this position. Through “collective bargaining” as a group, law schools could help change which policies were offered, as well. Nader also suggested that law school tuition was unnecessarily high, especially at universities with endowments the size of Harvard’s. “Why are students paying full tuition,” he asked, when “the [Harvard] law school endowment alone is over a billion dollars?” This, he noted, was larger than other top law schools’ endowments combined. In addition, he said, the law school was “constantly tapping into us as alumni…nonstop”.
If not providing some relief to students, he wondered, “what is all this money for? Building more buildings and endowing more chairs?” He went on to suggest that recent moves by Harvard College to make tuition more affordable for middle class students ought to be emulated by the university’s graduate schools. Nader and Hall’s letter was sent to ten law schools. Nader said that he received responses from three of those schools, including Harvard. The responses, he alleged, addressed his accusations with regard to financial aid, but did not go far enough to explain how law schools were helping students evaluate firms. Dean Kagan’s response emphasizes that HLS’ “primary focus is our students’ best interests,” including “preparing them for whatever legal career they choose upon their graduation”.
She noted that OPIA provides advising on a broad range of career options, and that both OCS and OPIA train students to ask difficult questions of employers. In addition, she listed a broad range of resources available to students to seek evaluations of employers, noted that students’ surveys of former employers were confidential, and quoted statistics demonstrating that many HLS students are able to go on to careers outside of corporate law.
Addressing Nader’s questions about financial aid and tuition, Dean Kagan wrote that HLS has not entered into “preferred lender” agreements. She made note of the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) as one means law students have available to help alleviate the financial burden of high tuition repayments.
Nader, however, sticks by his suggestion that neither Harvard nor other law schools were doing enough to actively provide students with evidence of firm wrongdoing. While students are able to comment on the firms they had worked for, he said, this information remains selective and biased. He observed that “students who are offered jobs” after working for them over the summer “are not exactly going to rake the firm over” even if they observed ethics violations. When evaluating firms, Nader noted, students still have to do their own, independent research in order to discover what might be unpalatable practices.
Nader also said that programs like the LIPP were inadequate; they “have a cap”. Financial pressure placed students at odds with the reasons they chose to attend law school and the ideals the law school itself should espouse.
The fact that laws schools themselves were not encouraging the fulfillment of these ideals, he suggested, was evidence of their capitulation to the interests of donors. Nader singled out John M. Olin in particular, a donor whose money helped found HLS’ Olin Center for Law, Economics, and Business. Olin was a “total cost-benefit ideologue,” he said, “a Milton Friedman type”. He implied that these positions might be influencing HLS’ scholarship and its attitude toward students’ career choices.
Independent of the concerns he articulated in his letter, Nader offered a number of suggestions about how law schools and the ethical standards adopted by the legal community might be reformed. For one, he suggested, it should be considered unethical for defense and plaintiff’s counsels to negotiate during class action lawsuits, because this presented a conflict of interest.
He also hoped that law schools would place more emphasis on lawyers’ roles as officers of the court. Lawyers, he said, were all at least “quasi public officials” who have obligations beyond the interests of their clients. Given that lawyers “have a monopoly on the marketplace” of legal representation, a profession-wide acknowledgment of this would ensure that the public interest was kept in mind in the course of any legal proceeding.
Finally, Nader said that fear of not getting a job should never prevent a law student from speaking his or her mind. Given that there remained “a huge expanding market for lawyers”, the threat of unemployment was a red herring, and should “never diminish courage in that way”. He said that such fears had been somewhat justifiable during the McCarthy era, but that it was absurd that students should feel the same way today.
Nader, who ran for president in 2000 and 2004, remains officially undecided about whether he will participate in the race this year, but said that he would “decide this month”.