Leading Edge Conference: Facing and Forming Legal Education’s Future with Insights, Data and Inclusive Thinking

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the 6th annual Leading Edge Conference hosted by Wolters Kluwer (WK) in Riverwoods, Illinois. It was my first experience with this particular conference. Using an unconference format and with a balance of old-timers and new attendees, WK brought together approximately 30 “thought leaders” for two+ days of intense discussion. Participants included professors and deans from a wide variety of law schools, representatives from law related entities such as LSAC, NITA and IAALS, education or pro-bono related entrepreneurs, and digitalization pioneers.

In addition to the conference, WK hosts the Leading Edge Webinar Series and just announced its 2nd annual Leading Edge prize. Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000) will be awarded to two winning teams “to help implement their visions of improving student outcomes or expanding educational opportunities for law students.” Proposals are due August 15th.

I left the conferences with many “take-aways,” that I am only beginning to fully digest, and with a better sense of the continuing challenges facing legal education and our profession. Bernard A. Burk, Jerome M. Organ and Emma B. Rasiel recently published in the Nevada Law Review “Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy: An Empirical Study”. Their research examined the response of law schools “to the substantial fall off in both the number and the conventional qualifications of applicants to law school that began after 2010.”

The “Competitive Coping Strategies” research also explains why more law schools have not closed and emphasizes the “widened distance” between current students’ needs and current school resources. The study found that in the face of plunging applications to law school, “Reputationally stronger schools” generally chose to preserve their entering Class Profile. This meant “thousands of viable candidates remained available to other law schools, effectively preventing the closing of as many as twenty Reputationally Weaker schools.”

Second, the study points out the implications of shrinking Class Size and discounting Tuition to preserve entering class profile. “As a practical matter, then, law schools ‘invested’ in Profile rather than in expanding their faculties, facilities or their access to clinical and experiential education. We encourage discussion of the implications of this investment choice.”

Third, the study noted that “some Reputationally Weaker law schools perversely were able to maintain or raise their average Net Tuition” and “the students with the least promising prospects for obtaining or making any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them. These inequalities expanded significantly after 2010.”

Fourth, the study highlights the millions of dollars in forgone Tuition Revenue “unavailable to meet the needs of students who at many law schools are significantly less prepared” than their predecessors and suggests this widening gap underlies the declining Bar Exam pass rate.

We seem to have reached a plateau in declining admissions to law school. But that plateau is not a place for us to settle in and rest. There are too many hard questions about where we are now.

How do we address the inequalities which have expanded since 2010 in law schools? What is the value we provide to those with the “least promising prospects?” Is it immoral that those least likely to make “any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them?” or that they may be undertaking crippling debt to obtain a law degree?

On the other hand, if we narrow the pathway into law schools even further, rejecting any who come to law school less credentialed or less prepared, will we be rejecting the dreams and hopes of those who desire a professional pathway? Will we be rejecting many who will find an economically sustainable and good life for themselves? Will we be playing God with students from less advantaged backgrounds just because we don’t know who will make it and who won’t? Will we be eliminating first generation students in larger numbers? Will we be amplifying the lack of diversity in our profession?

And what about the role of law schools in the community at large at this moment in our nation’s fledgling history? Shouldn’t we continue to exist as community laboratories which encourage civil discussion, uphold the rule of law, critique unjust legal systems and decisions, work to sustain democratic institutions and constitutional checks and balances, and produce new ideas about the role of law and legal systems in society?

Finally, if we espouse the “public good” values of my last two paragraphs as arguments for the continued existence of the legal academy and law schools, then do we prioritize these values in our faculty hiring, our strategic plans, and our prioritization of resources?
So, I leave you as I left the conference, with more questions than answers, but with a firm sense that we must continue to ask these important questions.

(Note: the author had her lodging, food and flights paid. She was not paid to write or post anything about the conference. Besides, she is pretty opinionated and not easily swayed.)

TEACHING RESILIENCE AND BEING RESILIENT : Filling Our Tanks This Summer

About a month ago, I had the pleasure of attending the annual AALS clinical conference held  in Chicago.   The conference focused on achieving happiness and resilience at a time of challenge in legal education while exploring methods for becoming “better” clinical teachers.  Clin14BookletWeb

The Keynote opening presentation by Professor Nancy Levit from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law outlined research about happiness,  lawyers and legal careers.   Professor Levit’s  book with Doug Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law, was published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Their sequel, The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law is now available.  The Levit and Linder research helps answer questions for our students and ourselves about how and why lawyers find a  legal career rewarding.   Much of the research reveals that simple truths about happiness – such as feeling valued or being part of a community – bears repetition.   The presentation was informative and the research can be used in advising our students, supporting our colleagues and caring for ourselves.

After her keynote, panelists Professor Calvin Pang (University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law)  and Professor Joanna Woolman (William Mitchell College of Law) with moderator American University Professor Brenda Smith presented a few clips from a very realistic “role play” focused on a “devastating” day in court and the responses  of a clinical teacher, clinical student, and non-clinical colleague.    (The film will be available after the conference – I believe at the AALS site – for those who want to use it in their home schools.)  In the film, the law student  faces a surprising negative court ruling and then experiences his client yelling at him outside the courtroom.   In conversation with the clinical professor, the student expresses anger with his client and believes he should just “drop” clinic.  The clinical professor listens to the student and also explores other aspects of the student’s current anger and despair including his having received a number of employment rejections during this same time period.

The film was provocative and engendered good discussion about the role of law professors .  Many of us have experienced with our students or in our own professional lives the coinciding emotional burdens of dealing with difficult emotions in client’s cases and receiving negative news on the home or career front.   Managing and coping with all those emotions and burdens is a never-ending part of professional development and law schools can and should play a significant role in preparing students with appropriate skills, appreciation of professional values and coping tools.

In a final exercise, the entire room of about 500+ created word trees on three questions:

1.  What do you do as a teacher to “fill your tank.?”

2. What do you do to encourage your students to adopt habits to make themselves whole?

3. What are the barriers and obstacles to the first two?

In asking myself these questions and watching the hundreds of others eagerly participate, I reflected on the particular importance of the resilience, holistic, and happiness theme at this moment in time.   Students and recent grads need our positive support.  Institutions need our creative, optimistic energy.   But providing that energy and support can be personally tolling.

Student-centered faculty – and in particular clinical faculty with summer burdens or untenured faculty with heavy writing demands – must  carve out some real off time or vacation in order to be effective in the long term.  Their institutions must support their need for renewal.  Filling  our personal “tanks” with sunsets, summer treats (ice cream for me!), some  relaxing days, renewed commitment to exercise or getting outside, and time vacationing with loved ones helps form the foundation for resilience in the academic year.  We need to do this not only to support our own resilience but to equip ourselves with the experience-based wisdom that will be needed in great quantities in the coming semesters.  In order  to assist our students and our institutions at this precarious time for law schools, we need to nurture our whole selves now.

Quite Moving but Frightening Testimony at AALS Conference

I write from the Hilton Hotel in New York City where the American Association of Law School annual conference has just ended.   The most memorable and riveting session I attended was the ABA panel presentation on proposed revisions to accreditation standards,   I knew full well that this would be an intense session and blogged about the dangers of these proposed revisions earlier in the year  here. .  The proposed revisions will change dramatically what I consider an essential facet of legal education:   the ability to acknowledge, discuss, debate, theorize,and write about  issues that are unpopular.  It will also prevent law faculty from teaching about and working with students representing clients on issues which are unpopular.   I knew this discussion would be intense but I was not prepared for  the stories of our brave peers in the academy which reinforced for me the fundamental importance of academic freedom supported by tenure or security of position.

One professor who self-identified as a female American who is Muslim reported  that she received death threats at work for appearing at a Department of Justice panel on National Security and Muslim issues.   She noted that without tenure and academic freedom, she would be at risk for firing for doing no more than accurately describing the national security legal issues.  She also eloquently explained that as a young, female professor of Muslim religious and cultural identity, she was vulnerable for receiving student pushback and bias for her assuming the position of power and authority over students.  Without academic freedom secured by tenure,  she would fear student bias in evaluations or impressions which could threaten her job security because of her Muslim identity.   A white woman who  taught at a religious school in the deep south,  movingly described her experiences. Without academic freedom supported by tenure, she found that  just raising legitimate legal issues and cases regarding property, same sex marriage, second amendment law, domestic violence or other issues could put her at risk of losing her job.  Had she not been supported by a tenure system which requires “cause” not popularity as measured by teaching evaluations or other factors, her personal and financial incentive would encourage her to avoid  teaching  important legal questions  for fear of back”pushback” .  Professor Terry Smith of Depaul College of Law presented remarks on behalf of the minority law professors section whose members attended in great numbers.  I share with you  his statement here (ABA Statement 1 4 13 ) Another member of the minority law professors section, Professor Anthony Farley,  cautioned that these issues are not “speculative” and spoke about ongoing attacks on academic  freedom, faculty governance, tenure and security of position at a particular school.  Other faculty members discussed how its hard to teach constitutional law in this country without mentioning race but that faculty who do not have security of position will find it difficult because when race is mentioned in a classroom, faculty inevitably suffer in teaching evaluations by students who are uncomfortable talking about race.

Professor Kate Kruse, past president of the Clinical Legal Education Section  noted that for many clinicians academic freedom has only been made real by the current ABA  standard 405 (c) and the  proposed revisions make no attempt to provide a “safe harbor” for the majority of clinicians and legal writing professors who also need to enjoy academic freedom.  There was some discussion by panelists and audience members about an earlier proposal which would have eliminated the hierarchical status types among faculty and questions about why that proposal was never presented for notice and comment.  See earlier blog discussion of the proposals. Past President of the AALS Clinical Section and Fordham Law’s Professor Elizabeth Cooper noted how tenured clinicians are  often asked by untenured  clinical colleagues to make points at public meetings that they are unable to make for fear of impact on their continued employment.

Members of the panel thanked those who testified for good reminders about the negative and practical consequences of these revisions. The Chair of the Council on Legal Education, attended and wanted the audience members to know that he had listened carefully to the concerns.  Past President of the AALS, Professor Leo Martinez and panel members urged  all interested parties to submit written  comments about this controversial proposed revisions on the ABA website found here.

Will Proposed Revised ABA Standards Result in Less Diverse Faculties and Monolothic Thought?

Concerns about the impact of the ABA proposed revised accreditation standards governing faculty  on diversity on law faculty and on diversity of thought have been raised eloquently in a Law Professors Letter to the ABA on Tenure that has circulated on the minority and clinic listservs as well as in other areas.    The  deadline for signing onto the letter is this Monday October 7th,  You can sign here:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/16W-bQtXqbk09plpoOVpQQ5s8ZriYm0VeucU38KAWQcU/viewform

ABA COUNCIL ELIMINATES ANY MEANINGFUL SECURITY OF POSITION FOR FACULTY AND TURNS ITS BACK ON EXPERIENTIAL FACULTY

As reported last week here, the ABA Council on Legal Education met in San Francisco to review proposed revisions to law school accreditation standards.  The ABA reviewed four proposals sent to them by the Standards Review Committee (which I described in an earlier post here) and which were intended to address  faculty competence, academic freedom and governance rights.   The Council sent out for notice and comment two of the four proposals. Some commentators have suggested that one of the adopted proposals includes some security of position and the other does not. However, a closer look suggests that neither proposal affords any meaningful security of position.  see National Law Journal  

The alternative that mentions security of position states that:

(d) A law school shall afford all full-time faculty members a form of security of position sufficient to ensure academic freedom and attraction and retention of a competent full-time faculty (emphasis added).”

At first glance, I optimistically thought “Maybe ensuring a competent full-time faculty would require something beyond at-will employment?” However,  I was reminded by a professional colleague that this proposal is identical to the current provision for legal writing professors, which has been interpreted to permit at-will contracts as long as the teachers are “competent,”  Undeterred in my optimism, I thought “Well ensuring academic freedom certainly needs to ensure some job security especially for folks like clinicians who have been attacked repeatedly for representing the powerless against the moneyed members of our society, right?”  However,  the ABA interprets that same language  in the clinical context to permit one-year renewable contracts,  as long as the institution has a “policy” on academic freedom,

As Amy Poehler would say “Really!1?!  Really!?!”    Is that really the kind of job security that will fill you with confidence in advocating  on behalf of seemingly powerless clinic clients or articulating unpopular but important legal positions?   And what about all this talk from the ABA and the profession about how students need to be better prepared for practice and the profession.   “Really!1?!  Really!?!”  How is that going to happen when you de-value those in the academy who teach through supervised practice ?   CLEA President Kate Kruse got it spot on when she wrote on the clinic listserv,

“Because tenure is now and is likely to remain the norm only for doctrine professors, both of these provisions protect current faculty power relationships and threaten the presence in legal education of teachers specializing in experiential education.’

That is not good news for legal education, law students or future clients.  REALLY.

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