The Legal Beat
‘Legal Asylum’: An Interview With Stanford Law Professor And Novelist Paul Goldstein
Posted on Tuesday February 14, 2017
Much of what you’ll read about legal education in the pages of Above the Law is, well, a bit depressing. These are tough times for law schools, as well as their students, graduates, and professors. Occasional good news, like a law school with skyrocketing applications, is outweighed by stories like law students turning to a food bank to make ends meet.
For a refreshing change of pace — still critical of law schools, but designed to make you laugh instead of cry — check out Legal Asylum, a new satire of legal academia by Professor Paul Goldstein of Stanford Law School. As I said in my blurb for the book, “This biting satire by a longtime law professor offers frightening insights into the modern American legal academy.” And it’s also quite funny in parts, containing “plenty of effective satire, particularly for U.S. News aficionados,” as resident book critic Harry Graff opined in these pages.
What’s the background behind this interesting new novel? I recently interviewed Professor Goldstein, and here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.
DL: In Legal Asylum, you masterfully capture the legal profession’s obsession with ranking and pedigree — for example, the famed and feared U.S. News rankings of law schools, which play a major role in the novel. Can you tell us a bit about your own path through the profession, and how you made your way to holding an endowed chair at a top-three law school?
PG: I was very fortunate to get my start in law teaching at a state law school, and long before the rankings game got underway. I say “fortunate” not because that law school was in any way the model for the state law school in Legal Asylum — I promise you, it wasn’t — but because my experience there underpins my strong skepticism that the U.S. News hierarchy offers any useful information about differences across broad tiers of American law schools. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? ATL covers that story very effectively. But like countless other schools, state and private, that didn’t make it into the top tiers once rankings began, we were preparing students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. That said, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have landed at Stanford.
DL: This is not your first foray into fiction; Legal Asylum is actually your fifth novel. But it’s your first set in the legal academy, even though serving as a law professor is your “day job.” What took you so long to write about the law-school world — and what gave you the idea to do so?
PG: I had been keeping a file folder of tidbits about the legal academy for decades without knowing whether they were for a dramatic novel or a comic one. The contortions that law schools go through to keep from slipping down the U.S. News ladder could read as tragedy or comedy. But then a conversation with a friend who teaches in our medical school finally resolved the book’s direction. The look of shocked disbelief on his face when I explained to him that tenure and career advancement for law professors turn not on publication in peer-reviewed journals like the ones where he and his colleagues publish, but on publication decisions made by student editors at law reviews, left me no choice but to write this as comedy. But a strong story is as important in comedy as it is elsewhere, and I’m glad I had the skills from the four earlier novels to build the story in Legal Asylum.
DL: So Legal Asylum is a satire, and a pretty biting one at times. You don’t pull your punches when it comes to law schools, law professors, and law deans. Did you have any concerns about how your colleagues might react to the book?
PG: My experience with the book’s publication convinces me that my Stanford colleagues are not only the smartest, hardest-working, and best-looking law professors anywhere on the planet, but also that they are the most forgiving. Still, I have two colleagues who saw a pre-publication version of the book and have since been conspicuously silent. I see them in the corridors, but not a word has passed between us. Hmmmm.
DL: Some of the funniest parts of Legal Asylum involving skewering the self-indulgence and lack of practicality seen in law professors’ scholarship and in the law school curriculum. But what’s no laughing matter is the sticker price for law school — and the resulting debt. I think even the harshest critics of the legal academy would accept that a law school like Stanford offers fair value to its grads. But what about lower-ranked schools? If your child or the child of a family friend asked you if she should go to a non-T14 law school at sticker price (no scholarship or tuition reduction), borrowing the entire amount, what would you say?
PG: I would advise my niece to think hard about her motives for going to law school — is it the idea of service that drives her, or the promise of wealth? — and then to kick the tires at two or three to see how the training they offer, and what their recent graduates are doing, square with her objects. I say “niece” because I have a niece who did just that. She took the part-time track at McGeorge, graduated last spring, survived the bloodbath of this past summer’s California bar, and is now on her way to a rewarding career. It’s so easy for Americans to forget that there are other ways to get legal training than a lockstep three-year program. In most of the world, law is an undergraduate major, not a professional degree, and requires a period of practical office training before admission to the bar.
DL: Focusing on the other side of the law school lectern, we live in interesting — and, as captured in Legal Asylum, very challenging — times for legal education. Getting a job as a law professor is harder than ever, given how many law schools are shrinking rather than growing their faculties. What advice would you give to an aspiring law professor today?
PG: I’d say be prepared to tighten your belt. The cushy course loads and exotic travels depicted in Legal Asylum will increasingly be a thing of the past. As schools shrink their entering classes to keep GPA and LSAT numbers up, and shrink their faculty to keep their budget numbers down, the last law teachers left standing are going to carry heavier course loads — no matter how small a school gets, someone has to teach tax — and, thanks to pressure from career-minded students, the orientation of more of those courses is going to be toward practice than toward what passes for theory in law schools today. Faculty are also going to be called on to bear more of their school’s administrative burdens, including student recruitment. I suspect there will be no time left in which to write novels.
DL: Well, we hope that you’ll still have time to write novels! What’s the next writing project on your plate?
PG: I’m one or two polishes away from finishing the fourth novel in a series that has a difficult but indefatigable trial lawyer, Michael Seeley, as its central character. As a novelist yourself, you know how themes and characters we’ve never even dreamed of can take over the keyboard and elbow aside our best-laid plans. The legal battle between a giant international conglomerate and a tiny hometown brewer that I had planned to be the center of the story is still very much there, of course, but so — to my surprise — is a story of racial strife in the Rust Belt city where the trademark trial unfolds.
DL: It sounds fascinating; we look forward to it. In the meantime, congrats on Legal Asylum, and thanks for taking the time to chat!
(Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.)
Legal Asylum [Amazon (affiliate link)]
David Lat is the founder and managing editor of Above the Law and the author of Supreme Ambitions: A Novel. He previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Newark, New Jersey; a litigation associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. You can connect with David on Twitter (@DavidLat), LinkedIn, and Facebook, and you can reach him by email at email@example.com.