The ABA Calls for Law School Reforms

The language couldn’t be more stark:

“At present the system faces considerable pressure because of the price many students pay, the large amounts of student debt, consecutive years of sharply falling applications, and dramatic changes, possibly structural, in the jobs available to law graduates. These have resulted in real economic stresses on law schools, damage to career and economic prospects of many recent graduates, and diminished public confidence in the system of legal education.”

That was the centerpiece of the opening statement in the Draft Report and Recommendations from the ABA’s Task Force on The Future of Legal Education. Released on Friday (Sept. 20), the draft report recommends promoting more equitable distribution of discounts to make law school more affordable to students with financial need; liberalizing accreditation standards to encourage greater diversity in curriculum and application; softening ABA standards to foster more classroom experimentation; devoting more attention to practical training and real world experience for students; and reducing licensing requirements for professionals without JDs so they can provide limited legal services to underserved populations.

The draft report was written in response to a shifting legal landscape, where graduates struggle with crushing tuition debt and limited job prospects. The task force, which consisted of 21 members ranging from State Supreme Justices to private practice attorneys, shared that comments submitted by recent graduates reflected “a conviction that they received insufficient development of core competencies, particularly those relating to representation and service to clients.” And they believe this failure is rooted in an insulated law school faculty and administration.

LAW SCHOOLS NOT VERY RESPONSIVE TO CUSTOMER DEMANDS OR COMPETITION

“Law schools have long escaped pressure to adapt programs or practices to customer demands or to the pressures of business competition,” according to the report. As a result, law schools have grown into academic enterprises delivering a public good. This has produced an “entrenched culture and structure [that] has promoted declining classroom teaching loads and a high level of focus on traditional legal scholarship.” And it does so at the expense of the private good: Training law students to earn a livelihood. To fix this incongruity, the task force recommends giving law schools the freedom to “move to reconfigure the faculty role and promote change in faculty culture.”

The task force also blames the ABA itself for stifling classroom creativity. The draft report admits that the ABA’s Standards for Approval of Law Schools may discourage cost reduction and constrain “innovation and experimentation” in law schools. The task force calls on its Legal Education section to modify or eliminate those standards that hinder experimentation and risk-taking, along with encouraging law schools to draw from emerging trends like integrating cross-curricular content.

REPORT URGES MORE VARED AND CREATIVE APPROACHING TO LAW SCHOOL TEACHING

In addition, the report’s authors recommend that law schools experiment with different educational models. It notes that universities often have very different approaches. For example, some institutions focus on research, while others differentiate themselves through teaching excellence. The task force challenges its members to “imagine a system in which law schools with very different missions might be accommodated, say, for example, a school where relatively little time was committed to faculty research and publishing and much more time spent on practice-ready training.” In doing so, the task force envisions that variety “could facilitate innovation in programs and services; increase educational choices for students; lessen status competition; and aid the adaptation of schools to changing market and other external conditions.”

The task force wasn’t just speaking to law schools in its draft report. They emphasize that helping students and graduates achieve competences is also the responsibility of bar associations, law firms, and attorneys themselves. In their words, it is these groups’ duty for “…providing teaching resources, providing settings in which students can practice and develop skills and talents, and helping instill in students the culture and values that surround and shape the competences of lawyers.” The task force reinforces this pay-it-forward stance by observing that “affording new lawyers with opportunities for mentoring and further practical training must be fashioned keeping in mind the demands that employment and substantial debt place on so many of them.”

A REPORT THAT CHALLENGES THE STATUS QUO

Although this is only a draft report, it directly challenges the status quo. It signals that task force members are open to profound changes that reduce tuition debt loads and provide students with greater practical experience. It also questions sacred cows like student-to-faculty ratios and the tenure system. Still, the task force tread cautiously in some areas, notably by only recommending further study in sensitive areas like reforming student loans and tuition pricing.

According to the ABA, the task force will continue taking public comments and issue a final report before the end of 2013, so the document can be considered by the ABA House of Delegates at their February 2014 meeting.

To read the ABA’s Task Force’s Draft report Report on The Future of Legal Education, click here: ABA Task Force Draft Report