Friday, August 29, 2008

Teach Your Children Well

What do you teach your children to best equip them for the world? You might start with work hard, be honest, do not brag. Isn't it amazing what bad advice this can be. Take for example the world of legal education. There are many hard workers here, but in a "no good deed goes unpunished way," what their hard work becomes is a way for others to free ride. Have you ever been at the grocery store and had to pick which line to go through. Chances are you picked the line with the fastest cashier. At the end of the day that person's hard work will be rewarded by having to check out twice as many people as his or her slow moving, life-is-one-big-chat, neighbor. The same principle applies in legal education (the only world I know) and I expect everywhere else. In law school those do not work hard force those who have a work ethic to work even harder. Hard workers are often the servants of the goof offs.

Honesty can be a real disadvantage. The close-to-the-vest- do-not-disclose-anything- do-not-write-down-anything mentality prevails and works for those who use it. Very clearly it gives them a boost over your silly honest person. (Or to adapt a phrase from Amartya Sen, the "honest fools.") Somehow the theory that that type of behavior will be sanctioned and eventually eliminated just does not always work out. The prevailing climate is that it is all one poker game and you never disclose your cards. The problem is that the honest people are not playing the game. The concept of honesty as a principle is over. Instead, honesty is meted out in small portions to the extent it advances an individual's interests.

Do not brag. What bad advice that is and what better example than legal education. Self promotion -- whether individual or institutional -- is a way of life. Various entities actually facilitate it. Take SSRN which has so many categories of "top tens" that it is hard to write an article and not receive an email indicating your are in the top ten -- even if it is the top ten articles on elder law and restitution. Resumes are padded so much that could could sleep comfortably on most of them. One page introductions to someone else's article get as much billing as a 200 page effort. And have you noticed some email signatures -- associate this, associate director of that, Director of this or that. Somehow in all of this I think there is a Toby Keith song: "You talk about your degree, your article, your directorship, your summer conference in Rome, your quote in the Dade City Gazette."

Work hard, be honest, do not brag. Think twice before you give your kids this advice or you may be sentencing them to a very hard future.

1 comment:

Greg N. said...

Instead of an hourly wage (or maybe in addition), perhaps grocery stores should pay their cashiers by the number of customers "checked out." I don't know what the law school equivalent would be. But it seems like some sort of reform to change the incentive structure would be necessary.

Law schools need some kind of "invisible hand" to channel all of the elites' private vices into public virtues.