First Nomination For “The Donald Sterling Award Award”: The American Bar Association

Cracked trophy

It’s time to launch  a new dubious honor here at Ethics Alarms: The Donald Sterling Award Award.

The DSAA gets its name from the embarrassing “Man of the Year” award that the San Diego NAACP was preparing to bestow on Donald Sterling shortly before his racially offensive comments to his mistress were recorded and leaked to the news media. Sterling had already engaged in conduct that seemed to make  NAACP recognition both unlikely and ill-advised, so his award, which the organization retracted, is the perfect model to emulate for future organizations determined to undermine their values and objectives by choosing inappropriate honorees.

And the first nomination for the The Donald Sterling Award Award is The American Bar Association, for its decision to give its 2014 Robert J. Kutak Award to New England Law/ Boston dean John F. O’Brien.  The award is given annually “to an individual who has contributed significantly toward increased cooperation among legal education, the practicing bar, and the judiciary.”

Well, maybe O’Brien technically deserves that award, but then Sterling had given a lot of money to local projects benefiting African-American kids in San Diego, too.  The problem is that O’Brien could serve as the poster boy for the ugly underbelly of legal education and its disconnect to the current economics of the legal profession. In 2013, he gave his school unwanted publicity when it was revealed that he earned a salary of $867,000, among the very highest law dean salaries in the country, while  low-ranked New England Law/ Boston charged $40,904 for yearly tuition. Before considering lowering his own compensation, he started cutting faculty positions, until he finally relented and took a pay cut to a paltry $650,000 a year. I know, it’s less than three Hillary Clinton speeches. But the going rate for deans at the top law schools has been estimated to be “only” $450,000, and O’Brien runs a school that is the opposite of “top.”

Here is the always entertaining Ellie Mystal summing up the outrage...

“O’Brien’s salary represents everything that is WRONG with the economics of legal education. It’s an old, established man profiting off of the false hopes and bad decisions of the young. His salary is a vampiric redistribution of wealth from those who don’t know any better to those who should, with the federal government acting as the middle man”

…and then neatly explaining why the ABA giving O’Brien an award is not just dumb, but harmful:

“You know who I kind of feel bad for? Other law deans. I’m serious, there are over 200 of them, and not all of them are like this…there are other, sentient law deans who are more proactively trying to address the problems caused by their species. Even if they are not selfless, there are many who can see the danger of eating all the crops without replanting seeds. But when the ABA picks a guy like O’Brien to honor, it makes all of them look bad.”

But not, I think, as bad as it makes the ABA look.

Linked is the statement of mission and goals of the organization. How does honoring the dean of a lower level law school who accepts a princely salary while the law school charges obscene amounts to student for a degree that is rapidly decreasing in earning power…

  • Promote the highest quality legal education?
  • Promote competence, ethical conduct and professionalism?
  • Increase public understanding of and respect for the legal profession?

It doesn’t, of course. In fact, it undermines all of these goals.

Oh, look, I’ve been in meetings, too many of them, when a committee stares at an organization award that is given annually and the chair says, “Anyone got any ideas who we can give this one to?” And it’s late, and there’s a lot left on the agenda, and someone says, “Hey! What about old Fred? He’s a good egg, and he’s done this, and that, and we don’t really have anyone else.” The chair breathes a sigh of relief and says, “Great. We’ll give it to Fred. Now on to the next item…” I know how this stuff happens. It is still irresponsible, and it is still wrong. When an organization represents a whole profession and the profession is in crisis, every decision matters, and every message counts. If you don’t pay proper attention to preserving your organization’s image and integrity, you may end up giving an award to Donald Sterling, and then everyone will begin to suspect that your organization isn’t as competent and serious as it’s supposed to be.

And they will be right.


Pointer and Facts: Above the Law



2 thoughts on “First Nomination For “The Donald Sterling Award Award”: The American Bar Association

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