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ABA Future of Legal Education Issues Its Draft Report

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So the ABA Task Force On The Future Of Legal Education released its draft report (PDF) today. They’ve spent the past year or so having meetings and discussing the problems facing the legal profession. Let’s look at their key conclusions:

Pricing and Funding of Legal Education

Law schools are funded through a complex system of tuition revenue and non-tuition sources such as endowment income and state subsidies. Law school pricing practices are also complex, and involve extensive discounting and reliance on loans. A currently widespread practice is for a school to announce nominal tuition rates, and then chase certain high LSAT/GPA students by offering substantial discounts (styled as scholarships) without regard to financial need. Other students, by contrast, receive little if any benefit from discounting and must rely extensively on borrowing to finance their education and various federal programs make such loans virtually open- ended. One result is that students whose credentials are the weakest incur large debt in order to sustain the school budget and enable higher-credentialed students to attend at little cost. Many of these less credentialed students also have lower potential return on their investment in a legal education. These practices are in need of serious re-engineering. (emphasis added)

Good. These funding practices need to be abolished. It confuses students and law schools need to stop using them.

Accreditation

The system of accreditation administered by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has served the profession and the nation well. Today, however, it reinforces a far higher level of standardization in legal education than is necessary to turn out capable lawyers. The ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools also impose certain requirements that increase costs without conferring commensurate benefits. The Task Force concludes that the Standards would better serve the public interest by enabling more heterogeneity in law schools and by encouraging more attention to services, outcomes, and value delivered to law students. The Task Force thus recommends that a number of the Standards be repealed or dramatically liberalized. (emphasis added)

What?! No it hasn’t. There are too many law schools, graduating too many lawyers. I’d argue that there should be more standardization. Less “Law and Harry Potter” electives and more requirements like “Equitable Remedies.” Get back to the core concepts of the law.

Innovation

The ABA accreditation system should also better facilitate innovation in law schools and programs of legal education. The current procedures under which schools can seek to vary from ABA Standards in order to pursue experiments are narrow and confidential. The Task Force recommends that the Section use the variance system energetically as an avenue to foster experimentation by law schools and open the variance process and results to full public view. (emphasis added)

I’d agree that law schools should have the freedom to innovate, but it’s difficult to innovate smartly. Ideally there would be a push to more adjunct professors who are practicing lawyers, giving law students the opportunity to learn from lawyers in the trenches. But if I had to guess, I imagine it will instead be more of The Future of the Future of Law.

Skills and Competencies

The principal purpose of law school is to prepare individuals to provide law-related services. This elementary fact is often minimized. The profession’s calls for more attention to skills training, experiential learning, and the development of practice-related competencies have been well taken. Many law schools have expanded such opportunities for students, yet, there is a need to do much more. The balance between doctrinal instruction and focused preparation for the delivery of legal services needs to shift still further toward developing the competencies required by people who will deliver services to clients. (emphasis added)

Welcome to the 20th century. The question is will law schools own up to it.

Broader Delivery of Law-Related Services

The delivery of law-related services today is primarily by lawyers. These services may not be cost-effective for many who are in need of them, and some communities and constituencies lack accessible legal services. State supreme courts, state bar associations, and admitting authorities should devise new or improved frameworks for licensing providers of legal services. This should include licensing persons other than holders of a J.D. to deliver limited legal services, and authorizing bar admission for people whose preparation may be other than the traditional four-years of college plus three-years of classroom-based law school education. The current lack of access to legal advice of any kind that exists across the country requires such innovative steps. (emphasis added)

While there is a glut of unemployed lawyers at the moment, and creating a lesser role to deliver limited legal services will likely hurt them, it’s also probably the right way forward for the legal profession and society as whole.

I’m digging into the entire report now, more Monday.

 

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

9 comments

  1. I’m glad to hear that you plan to carefully scrutinize the draft report, as I can’t bear to read such drivel. As you do, can you please take particular note of two things: First, the use of academic/futuristic jargon, like “experiential,” which I anticipate will be used to mask harder and deeper issues such as the inability and unwillingness of scholars to incorporate practice skills into doctrinal courses.

    The second thing is the lack of any overarching vision of how law school, with its various tweaks, fits into the needs of and problems facing the profession as a whole. You have already started this process, noting that the elimination of law schools, producing deeply indebted new lawyers without any hope of employment, isn’t mentioned.

    Given the nature of the nice lawyers who serve on ABA Committees, together with the excess influence of lawprofs who, ahem, have a huge horse in the race, I suspect easy answers couched in incomprehensible jargon that accomplishes little may well be the outcome of this very important undertaking. I look to you to pierce the bullshit, and know you won’t disappoint.

  2. I actually think the most significant portion of the paper were the recommendations to eliminate or
    substantially liberalize the following standards:
    —304-5 (relating to credit for work PRIOR to matriculation in law school) => Law School Credit while an Undergrad
    —306 (relating to distance education) => Legal MOOC’s, Fire or pay off more of the faculty but keep the best teachers and record their lectures
    —403 (relating to proportion of courses taught by full-time faculty)=> Give control back to the Dean and Univeristy, hire temps and fire dinosaurs, keep only the best full-time
    —405 (relating to tenure and security of position) Give control back to the Dean and Univeristy, hire temps and fire dinosaurs, keep only the best full-time
    —206(c) (requiring that, except in extraordinary circumstances, a dean be a faculty member with tenure) => Hire real business managers
    —304(b) (requiring as a condition of graduation 58,000 minutes of instruction time) => cut the third year and innovate ways to provide the same quality of training as the three year
    —304(c) (requiring that the J.D. program be completed no earlier than 24 months after commencement of law study) = cut the third year and innovate ways to provide the same quality of training as the three year
    —305(c) (prohibiting credit for field placements in which the student receives compensation) = legal residencies with law firms can become a reality
    —701-2 (relating to physical facilities) = online law schools start to disrupt traditional ones over the next 20 years

    They could cut out the rest of the paper in my view. These are the things things that would change legal education and early practice as we know it.

    • These are definitely among the paper’s highlights. So much of the paper doesn’t say anything. Just lots of words put together, because…why not! Which is expected if you form a committee of lawyers to write a paper.

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