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Paul Schiff Berman

Reputation Management – Learn From Others’ Mistakes

There are two main ways to look like a prick.  The first is by the actions you take.   Case in point – GoDaddy CEO Bob Parson got a lot of flak, and lost a lot of customers, for his recent participation in an elephant hunt.

The other way to look like a prick is to take an action that may be completely reasonable, but do it in a way that appears to be wholly self-focused and without consideration to the impact on others.  Such an act was allegedly committed this past week by one Paul Schiff Berman, dean of the law school at Arizona State University.

Photo by Ryan Cassella, used with permission from WNPR

In the last few years, ASU law school has added numerous programs and exalted faculty, increased the size of each incoming class, and added an undergraduate program.  Space at the law school is now at a premium and it’s been a challenge to accommodate everyone.  I would not be surprised if the school has given serious consideration to how it’s using its space and how it can use it more efficiently until the new facility is built downtown.

A few suspicious things have happened recently within the law school.  First, on the schedule of classes for Fall 2011, some classes are located in the “Law Library Basement.”  There are currently no classrooms in the library’s basement, and no classes have previously been held down there.  Second, there is a rumor that architects were discovered in the law journal’s room taking measurements, allegedly for “code compliance,” but they also had design plans with them.  It looks like the school plans to take away the law journal’s space in the basement and turn it into a classroom.  The fact that space is being reallocated does not surprise me, and it’s even reasonable given the circumstances.  What disturbs me is the fact that it was done without consideration of or notification to the people who will be directly impacted, not even the journal’s faculty advisor.

I’ve heard a few reactions from the law school student body regarding the expected changes and Berman’s reputation:

  • He made a bad assumption without proper investigation.  He assumed that journal doesn’t need the space because the journal’s layout is completed electronically instead of manually.
  • He’s a prick.
  • He acts in a way that says, “I do what I want and I’m not going to tell you about it.”

Berman already has a reputation of acting without transparency or considering the impact of his decisions on all parties.  Here’s what Berman could have done that would have had the same result but without further damaging his already tarnished reputation.

  1. Identify that the school has a space issue.
  2. Notify anyone whose space could be changed to resolve the problem.  Explain what the problem is and what the school’s overall goal is in reallocating space.
  3. Provide an opportunity to everyone involved to express their concerns about losing their space and what their needs are regardless of what space they are in.  Providing at least a token opportunity to be heard goes a long way.  It at least gives the impression that you care.
  4. Inform people who are losing their space in advance of disclosing it directly or indirectly to the entire student body.  Apologize for any inconveniences you’re causing and try to make the transition as easy as possible.

So what did we learn from this?  What you do matters.  How you do it matters more.

ASU Law Must Think We’re Morons

When I was a 1L, the school told us that the copy center at the law school had class outlines for sale.  There were dozens of outlines created by previous students available.  For some classes they are a necessity, and for others, it’s just nice to have another person’s outline to compare to your own and to have another person’s take on the material.

Photo by Ryan Cassella, used with permission from WNPR

Mysteriously, these outlines have disappeared from the copy center this semester, except for two “professor-approved” outlines.  Apparently, Dean Berman didn’t like that an outline for his Civil Procedure class was available.  It was over 100 pages long, and according to an email he sent to his students, it was almost verbatim what he said during his lectures.  The rumor is he didn’t want this outline to be available because he thought students should create their own outlines.  There was also another rumor that a different professor didn’t want students to have an outline for her class that clearly explained concepts because she liked it when students suffered.

I think this is probably Berman’s mental logic: “I benefited from making my own outlines from scratch without outside help, so no one else should be able to have external help from others’ notes.”  It doesn’t matter what Berman likes or doesn’t like.  It’s about the students being able to learn the material.  If having another information source is helpful, especially if they’re willing to pay the school extra to have it, then so be it!  Just because the school doesn’t like it or encourage it in general, it doesn’t make it wrong.

Here’s the moronic part – outlines are widely available and easily passed from student to student.  Student clubs have their own outline banks that they freely share with their members.  Any student whose judgment is so bad as to assume a 50-page outline will substitute for an 800-page textbook and a semester’s worth of lectures, shouldn’t be in law school in the first place.  Such assumptions only reflect the lack of confidence Dean Berman has in his students’ intellect and judgment.  The only thing the school did was cut off a revenue stream.  Given how much the school has had to raise tuition and class size, this seems like a really stupid thing to do.

And to top all of this off, the school didn’t think to inform the student body about this change.  The outlines simply disappeared at the end of last semester.  This lack of transparency makes me question what else the school might be hiding from students, its consumers and future donors.

Let me be clear, this is not a post demanding that the outlines be reinstated because I believe it’s an entitlement afforded to all law students.  I simply mean to enumerate one more example of a poorly chosen policy and the law school’s consistent inability to effectively instate such overhauls.  Not to mention the school’s now predictable attitude toward communicating with its students, that of don’t ask don’t tell.

And since I’m on my soapbox, I don’t think Berman should be teaching class.  He has enough to do with raising money for the school.  According to this year’s students, he frequently cancelled class due to his other job duties and made them up with marathon classes.  I hear he’s actually a good teacher, but I don’t think he should be an instructor and an administrator.  If I was one of his students, I would have been pissed.

Special thanks to my anonymous co-writer this week.

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No Love from ASU Law School for Current or Future Students

This past week, Elie Mystal of Above the Law wrote a biting and brilliant article about Dean Berman’s announcement that he intended to make the law school at Arizona State University less reliant on state funding.  Berman’s plan went from intriguing to horrifying when he said that he planned to do this by increasing the size of the law school student body and increasing tuition.

Seriously?!?

Mystal was on the right path when he said Berman’s plan would result in more unemployed lawyers with mountains of debt.  What he doesn’t realize is that ASU is already passed the capacity of its current facilities.  Where are they going to put another 30 people?  Furthermore, job prospects for law graduates in Arizona currently suck in this economy.  Is it ethical to flood the market with lawyers who can’t get jobs?

ASU Sign (1)
Image by John M. Quick via Flickr

I can understand Berman’s desire to be less reliant to state funding.  I’m sure some of his plans were derailed when the state budget for education was slashed.  I understand and generally respect the concept that people should pay top dollar for quality products.  However, asking students at a public university to carry this burden is asking too much.  And pissing off future alums by robbing them blind won’t help the school’s fundraising efforts.

In the National Law Journal, Berman said, “We’re expanding the scope of legal education.”  Is he referring to the cubic buttload of clinics, journals, and programs that have been added to the school since he became the dean?  Being a student at ASU Law, it seems like a new program is added every 30 seconds.  It seems like every time someone mentions the idea of starting something new at the school, Berman approves it.  I’ve been wondering where the school was getting the money to pay for all this.  I don’t know where it was coming from but now we know who will be footing the bill in the future – the students!  If the students are paying for everything, the school shouldn’t be expanding.  It should be focusing on doing a few things well – like preparing students to be actual lawyers with real lawyering skills.

Now, I take my fair share of flack for dissing my school while I’m still a student.  I’m not saying everything about it is bad – there are some awesome people at the school.  But from an administrative perspective, the school doesn’t seem to care about its students.  The most glaring proof of this are the decisions that are made to impress and entice potential students, but have limited usefulness to current students.  Have you seen the new website?  How about the new fancy desks that aren’t big enough to comfortably accommodate a laptop?  Or the classroom configurations that are a pain in the ass to navigate?  How many students were consulted before these decisions were made?  One current professor said probably zero.  There’s a lot of flash and sparkle without much utility.

You know what bothers me the most about Berman’s plan?  At a recent town hall meeting, Berman said, “”I never would have come if I knew they were going to privatize the law school.”  I know he said this because, (1) I was there, and (2) I immediately tweeted that quote out to the universe.  (Isn’t technology a bitch?)  If the dean of my law school is a walking contradiction, I’m pissed about how this institution is treating its students and severely concerned for its future.

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