At first glance, an American Bar Association accreditation site visit and a law school’s bid to boost its U.S. News & World Report ranking seem unlikely fodder for a comedic novel. But “Legal Asylum,” a blistering satire by longtime Stanford Law School professor Paul Goldstein, leverages that premise to send up to the legal academy’s obsession with U.S. News and to warn of the rankings’ corrosive impact on law schools.
“Legal Asylum” tells the tale of a fictional state law school in New England whose ambitious dean Elspeth Flowers will stop at nothing to move her institution into U.S. News’ top five. Meanwhile, an ABA accreditation site visit team, a major donor under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a warring law faculty, and a scheming mail room clerk all threaten to derail her efforts.
We caught up with Goldstein, a five-time legal novelist who has taught intellectual property at Stanford since 1975, to discuss the “Legal Asylum” and how he thinks it will be received by his professor colleagues. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Where did the idea for “Legal Asylum” come from?
I’ve been keeping notes in a file for all the time I’ve been in teaching, which is 50 years now. There are all sorts of odd things that have happened. The impact of U.S. News on the life of law schools really crystalized a lot of these thoughts. Take an institution that’s full of really smart, self-centered, self-serious people doing all the things they do, then you add the catalyst of U.S. News, which has put a lot of schools in jeopardy. U.S. News hasn’t put them in jeopardy, but their reactions have proved to be more amusing than I ever would have anticipated. Put those things together and I said, “I just had to write this book.”
Do you think some fellow law professor will be offended when they read the book? The professors don’t come off very well.
I sure hope they are! If I haven’t offended some legal academics, I’ve missed my aim in writing this book.
Obviously the book it satire and everything is exaggerated, but how how much truth does it capture?
There are kernels, and in some cases a lot more than kernels, of fact. Example: Law schools effectively bribing students with high GPAs and LSATs to come there, which translates into higher U.S News rankings.
To be sure, you don’t have schools contorting themselves like [the book's fictional law school State] does to hire the graduating students who cannot get legal jobs to teach first-year legal writing and research as a way to raise their mark in employment. Or doing the football-coach type recruiting of students that our Dean Flowers does. But you will find that there are law schools out there that are paying law firms to hire their graduates, just so they can get their number of legally employed graduates up. I just enlarge on that.
There’s a pretty extensive discussion among Dean Flowers and other administrators of exactly how they will manipulate each of U.S. News’ rankings criteria. Do you have any concern that some law school administrators out there will use “Legal Asylum” as a playbook to get their own school’s ranking up?
While I was writing the book, I got into a conversation with [Stanford Law Dean Elizabeth Magill] about this. I sent her the chapter and she loved it. I don’t think there’s any chance she’ll use it as a playbook. But you know, there may be somebody out there who says, “Wow, take the kids who are at the bottom of the class and can’t get jobs, and hire them to teach legal research and writing! Not only will you have full employment number, but it will get our faculty-student ratio to a better point, which is another U.S. news factor.” That’s a scary prospect right there.
Who do you see as the villain of the book? Is it the ruthless Dean Flowers? U.S. News itself?
I thought long and hard about that. I didn’t get the answer until I finished writing the book. U.S. News is not the villain. It has set a totally inapposite set of factors in measuring law school quality. But you can’t blame U.S. News for going to a profit center.
Similarly, you can’t blame the law schools that go through these contortions to move themselves up the rankings. For a lot of law schools, this is life and death right now. Attracting the students pay the tuition to keep the lights on has become a desperate effort.
So who is at fault? I think it’s the law school applicants. You take these college graduates who would spend more time inquiring about the quality of the automobile they’re going to buy before they invest in a purchase that is one-tenth the expense of a law school education that will color the rest of their life. It’s the laziness of applicants that I think is the villain of this piece.
Dean Flowers aspires to get a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Does pretty much every law professor secretly hope to make it to the High Court?
Oh yes. I think particularly among constitutional law professors, there’s this notion that, “Oh boy, if tapped on the shoulder, I’d go in a moment.” I don’t know if I’d drive my car over my mother’s body in doing so, but I suspect there are some cases where that would happen. Dean Flowers might very well do that.
What lessons should people take from the book?
Kick the tires if you are applying to law school. Don’t just rely on U.S. News. Be skeptical about the information you’re getting from U.S. News.
Contact Karen Sloan at email@example.com.