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.
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 The Task Force thus recommends that a number of the Standards be repealed or dramatically liberalized.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.
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.