What the Heck’s Going on at Oregon Law School?

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If there’s a golden rule for the internet, it’s that you don’t tweet, post, or email anything that you wouldn’t want made public. Law professor Robert Illig, it seems, did not get the memo on that.

Illig, an associate law professor at the University of Oregon, made headlines last week when his email diatribes to his fellow faculty members were leaked to online news outlets. In a nutshell, Illig was furious about a proposed initiative to cancel faculty raises — i.e., his raise — and divert the money to a job placement fellowship program for recent graduates. So furious was Illig that he wrote not one, but two nasty emails. Illig had some choice words for his colleagues and administrators:

No wonder we’ve become a third-tier law school. Who’s going to want to come here to study or teach in this kind of poisonous atmosphere? . . . Is this some kind of faculty version of white-man’s guilt? We see students without jobs and think that if we throw them a few of our dollars we can go back to our scholarship and not worry about whether they are getting real careers and real training? I feel that having given up the chance at a seven-figure annual income is charity enough for the students…

(You can read the entire meltdown in all its glory here, but suffice it to say, the dude is out of his mind.)

Let’s be fair: you would be angry too if your raise was suddenly taken away and given to someone else. But the manner in which Illig responds, with overdramatized characterizations of a “poisonous atmosphere” and racial overtones about “white-man’s guilt,” is completely over the top and inappropriate. If you’re wondering what Illig meant about giving up his chance at “a seven-figure annual income,” he’s probably referring to his days as a business lawyer with Nixon Peabody in London and New York. Illig actually elaborated on this when he appeared in the comments section of a local UO blog to defend himself (Yes, he did. Keep digging that hole, Professor):

In my former life, I was an M&A lawyer at a large New York law firm, where I was all but certain to be earning more that $1 million annually. No one can tell me I’m not on the students’ side . . . . The UO and its students are lucky to have me and all the other wonderful university faculty and staff who have sacrificed to be here.

Let’s get one thing straight: Mr. Illig may be able to make more money in the private sector, but in no way is he making some kind of “charitable sacrifice” for being a law professor. In exchange for the millions of earnings he gives up, he gets a cushy, lower stress job in academia with summer vacation while still making six figures per year. Plus, Illig was merely an associate at Nixon Peabody. He may have made partner and won his mythical seven-figure salary, but in the dog-eat-dog world of big law there are no guarantees.

But enough about Illig. He’s an easy target, but he’s not the only villain in this story. For starters, there’s the Oregon Law faculty, who not only leaked this embarrassing email to the public, but voted on the elimination of bonuses without people like Illig’s knowledge or consent. If we are to take Illig at his word, the faculty meeting was conducted at the same time as another law school event, an event which Illig attended. The idea that faculty members would vote against each other’s bonuses behind each other’s backs does not inspire confidence. Neither does the fact that the professors’ are airing each other’s dirty laundry to blogs and news outlets. Incidents like this can only hurt Oregon’s perception as the law school tries to recruit talented faculty.

Also, let’s not forget about the administration, who conjured up this half-brained plan in the first place. Whether the money comes from faculty salaries or from someplace else, job placement programs such as Oregon’s are nothing new. But let us remember what these programs truly are: the law school pays an employer money to temporarily hire an unemployed student. The graduate can now be counted as “hired,” which boosts the law school’s job placement percentage and in turn improves its standing with the U.S. News law school rankings. Current and future law students should be skeptical of such programs—are they leading to full time job offers? Are they actually developing grads in an area of their interest, or are they simply shoveling them document review-style temp work?

Oregon University has opted against the controversial salary-diverting program, but not without doing some damage to the reputations of its administration, faculty, and Illig himself. The takeaway for prospective law students is a reminder that the entry-level job market is still rough, and that law schools are starting to get creative when it comes to securing their students’ positions. Regardless of what steps law schools take, however, the best defense to a bad job market will always be in the law student’s hands: studying hard, networking well, and minimizing student loan debt.

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