ABA Panel Struggles for Answers on Law School Reform

Karen Sloan
The National Law Journal

It turns out that if you ask 30 different law professors, practitioners, judges and bar association leaders how to fix legal education, you’ll get about 30 different answers.

The lack of consensus about what ails law schools and how to fix them was on display Wednesday during a daylong conference hosted by the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Education.

Participants in the forum struggled for agreement about what is driving the rising costs of legal education—or about how schools and regulators should respond to declining job prospects for new lawyers and flagging interest in law degrees.

“What the task force is doing is very difficult politically. It’s very difficult conceptually. And its very difficult pragmatically,” said Valparaiso University School of Law dean Jay Conison, the task force’s reporter.

The conference brought members of the year-old task force together with dozens of experts and interested parties in effort to guide the deliberations and help shape the task force’s recommendations. Though no clear direction emerged, panel members said the exchange of ideas was useful.

“Among the things the ABA is working on, this may be the most important,” said ABA president-elect James Silkenat. He told attendees that he is asked about the task force’s work whenever he meets with bar and law school leaders.

The task force hopes to release preliminary recommendations during the late summer or early fall, with a final report to follow in mid-November, said former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, its chairman. Members already have heard from several hundred people in public hearings and through written comments, he said.

The task force is considering what law schools, the ABA and groups that control bar admissions should do, said Loyola University Chicago School of Law dean David Yellen, a member of the panel.

The wide-ranging discussion,held at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, veered from whether to use the ABA’s law school accreditation standards to force change, to whether a law degree is even necessary for many of the emerging jobs in the legal industry.

The attendees also appeared to struggle with whether the task force’s mission lies with the needs of law schools, the larger profession or the broader society. When asked specifically what should be done, the responses fell across the board.

Some said law schools should be required to spell out the core competencies that students should develop at set points during their legal educations; others, that tuition reduction was the first priority. Several attendees endorsed higher teaching loads. No single idea dominated.

The ABA’s accreditation standards were a major focus. However, no consensus emerged about whether to relax the standards in order to give law schools more room to experiment with curricula, or to tighten them to force specific changes.

University of Pennsylvania Law School dean Michael Fitts and former Southwestern Law School dean Bryant Garth argued that any attempt to bear down would stifle innovation and ultimately prove counterproductive.

But loosening up seemed wrongheaded to task force member Jolene Yee, an attorney from Newport Beach, Calif. Too many people have urged the task force not to just tinker around the edges, she said.”I feel like we are at a critical place in the profession. I’m not sure [deregulating law schools] is enough.”

If a law degree isn’t necessary for every job in the legal industry, perhaps some schools will develop programs intended to train people for non-lawyer jobs within the legal industry, suggested Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch.

“What are law schools and what should they be doing?” Berch said. “There’s a tension between what I see as a broad education and the need for what I see as legal technicians. I don’t know that these people are lawyers at all.”

At several points throughout the day, panelists and task force members discussed the idea of a tiered system of legal education that students could exit at different levels depending on their career aspirations.

Any recommendations by the task force would require approval from the ABA’s House of Delegates, and there is still a lot of work to be done before a report is issued, Shepard said.

“The trail from here to the House of Delegates seems a long way to me,” he said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.

One Response

  1. I watched the meeting and believe little will actually be achieved through their efforts. Two possible methods of cutting cost which were either not brought up or not thoroughly discussed were: creating a Bachelors Degree in Law that would allow you to sit for the Bar and Having Bar Associations follow the education requirement of California. that allows individuals to attend non-ABA approved law schools to sit for the Bar Exam. Both of these measures would result in lower cost alternatives to the current system of legal education. A bachelors degree in law would eliminate at least three years of debt that many law students take on prior to entering law school. Allowing students to graduate from non-ABA approved law schools allows new types of schools to emerge, like Concord Law School, which is 1/3 the cost of most law schools currently operating.

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