Looking At Ourselves–How Can Reduce Barriers to Entry in the Legal Profession?

Jennifer S. Bard, Visiting Professor of Law, University of Florida Levin College of Law

Over a series of past posts, I have looked at how law school could be adapted so that it does not disadvantage students who come not already knowing how to play the law school game. As we have known for a long time, some groups of students experience more initial success than others in law school–and these differences are magnified by the effect first semester grades can have on lifelong implications in terms of employment opportunities. Most law students catch on quickly after the first semester, but their self-esteem may have already been severely damaged in what Sara Berman has called “a zero-sum environment where initially-lower performers are not encouraged to improve in consistent and meaningful ways”.

But taking a step back from equalizing the experience of students already in law schools, it may be time to think about who isn’t there–and why. What aspects of legal education, such as the cost and program structure, create barriers to entry?  And how do these barriers to entry worsen an ever growing justice gap in the United States where only a small percentage of people who would benefit from legal representation have access to a lawyer?

The primary barriers are the cost of legal education and how it is structured.. The challenge we face is that there are barriers at every stage of the process, from high school graduation  to college entry and beyond.  Homelessness, substance use, mental health can all be factors in making  higher education inaccessible. Also, we know of the barriers students with disabilities face when they get to law school (or college), but we don’t know how many people who chose not to attend might have done so if they could do so from a more accessible location.  And of course, many scholars have pointed out that systemic racism is itself a formidable barrier in gaining admission to law school. 

We can’t as legal educators end the systemic racism and economic inequalities that block many people from even being eligible to attend law school.  Nor can we always reconfigure our aging infrastructure. But we can take responsibility for what we charge students to attend and how we structure the conditions for completion.

The first step to lowering the barriers within our own control is to recognize them. We need to re-evaluate the very structure of legal education–which can be most easily seen by reviewing the standards that both govern and reflect current practice. My intent is not to criticize the existing ABA standards or those who drafted and uphold them nor to suggest that they be rescinded, and legal education deregulated.   But rather to recognize the consequences and costs of these practices so we can better evaluate their value.  Below is a list of some obvious suspects–I’m sure everyone can generate more.

*Restrictions on Distance Education

With few exceptions, approved law schools cannot confer a degree on a student who does not earn two-thirds of their credits in face to face instruction. This continues to put law school out-of-step with nearly every other degree-granting program in the United States and to both the cost and physical demands of attending law school.

*Expensive Eligibility Requirements:

B.A. Required

Next on the list, we need to consider the cost in time and money of requiring that students earn a B.A. before enrolling in law school.  Lawyers in Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand are all practicing laws at the highest possible levels without seven years of post-secondary specialty training.

 *Length of Degree and Time Limit on Completion

Not only must students complete a B.A., but they must also accumulate 87 credits within 84 months of enrollment.  This of course adds cost in the form of tuition, but it also requires an even greater expenditure of time away from family and limit on the ability to earn a living.

Each of these requirements, indeed each of the Standards which govern legal education, were developed with the best intentions, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that just because we haven’t done something before doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t find a way to do it now.

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