Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mentally gifted, emotionally stunted

Two tales of the mentally gifted but emotionally stunted, from different corners of a law school:
  1. From the admissions office:

    Our heavily recruited 1L is exceptionally gifted, scored 178 on the LSAT, and sports a 4.03 undergraduate GPA, but she has always been so difficult.

    While many other students are thoughtful, kind, and mannerly, this student often acts like a 2-year-old. She wants the best of everything, wants it first, bawls like a baby if she doesn't get her way, and is maddeningly stubborn.

    She also has little self-control, is extremely impulsive, and does things right in front of law school faculty and administration even when she knows they are absolutely wrong. This behavior shows up in the way she acts with fellow students, in the way she confronts her instructors, and on those occasions when she represents the school at outside events, although she apparently acts better at home.

  2. From the faculty lounge:

    ArschlochOur highly vaunted faculty member is exceptionally gifted, landed one of his earliest articles in the Yale Law Journal, and is very proud of his 2,000 SSRN downloads, but he has always been so difficult.

    While most other members of our faculty are thoughtful, kind, and mannerly, this professor often acts like a 2-year-old. He wants the best of everything, wants it first, bawls like a baby if he doesn't get his way, and is maddeningly stubborn.

    He also has little self-control, is extremely impulsive, and does things right in front of his colleagues and his students even when he knows they are absolutely wrong. This behavior shows up in the way he ignores his students, in the way he abuses law school staff, and in his egotistical disdain of his colleagues, although he apparently acts better at home.
Click on the flowering narcissus to crack this conundrum
Both tales, of course, are nothing but lightly modified versions of a classic advice column letter to The Washington Post. The original subject of these laments was the writer's "beautiful 9-year-old daughter." It is more regrettable than it is remarkable that those sentiments can so readily describe law school stars — the tuition-paying variety as well as the tuition-collecting sort. Legal academia could do worse than embracing the advice that The Post gave to that exasperated mother: "Firstborns often think they deserve more than their younger siblings, but your eldest is taking her sense of entitlement way too far." Substitute prime donne for firstborns . . . . . You get the idea.

The admissions office version of the story is more readily understood but less readily remedied. The rankings-driven game of law school admissions drives admissions directors and committees everywhere to prize exactly one trait — apparent achievement in fields demanding raw analytical power — above all others and to the frequent detriment of other traits that law schools, the legal profession, and society at large should all prize. But the admissions offices of law schools everywhere are trapped in the beggar-thy-neighbor game that rankings fuel, and no easy cure lies in sight.

ArschlochFaculty hiring should be different, but often it isn't. Some and perhaps all law school faculties suffer from a marginal propensity for hiring odiously selfish colleagues, perhaps even an Arschloch so extreme as to be the worst law professor in America. One might imagine that slavish dedication to the rankings might propel this sort of mistake, but the situations seem awfully dissimilar. It's one thing to admit a grotesquely selfish student, or even to unleash her on the profession, but it is an altogether horrifying prospect for a faculty to entrench a relatively young Arschloch among its ranks. You have to share breathing space with this jerk! Imagine how much worse matters can be if you overpay Professor Arschloch, grant him tenure, and hire his superficially charming, insidiously destructive spouse. That power couple has the potential to suck your law school dry for four decades for $1 million to $1.5 million during every three-year cycle typically needed to confer the degree of juris doctor.

Flowering narcissusHere is a somewhat different way of quantifying the damage from hiring (and tenuring) even one mentally gifted, emotionally stunted faculty member. Conservatively speaking, a law school would commit the cash flow from an endowment valued between $2.5 million and $3.5 million for four decades in order to pay salary and benefits to an imprudently appointed Arschloch. Four decades' payouts come close to exhausting the entire value of the endowment. It's easy to double or triple the damage: hire the spouse, grant either or both an otherwise unfunded "center of excellence," agree to finance boondoggles foreign and domestic. A total bill of $8 million in wasted endowment value doesn't seem unreasonable.

That, at any rate, is the price tag attached to awful hiring. You might think — and I fervently hope — that the legal academy has ample incentive to solve this problem. On the other hand, it may simply be our fate as lawyers, or at least as law professors, to be drawn like bees to the bloom to mentally gifted, emotionally stunted individuals. After all, that description fits far too many of us, both in the broader legal profession and in the little corner we call legal academia.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Two thoughts:

1.I wonder if talent and stuntedness are somehow commenserates. If someone truly is brilliant and productive enough should they get a pass? I'd vote no but I think I would be in the minority.

2. Stuntedness and talent are hardly correlated. I think and examination of most law faculties would show that being stunted is not an indicator of talent.

6/25/2008 4:41 PM  

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