The outlook for law students has been dismal in recent years. According to Above The Law, the average law school student graduates with $140,616 in debt. That’s a huge number compared to the two million Americans who owe at least $100,000 in student debt. But what exactly are law schools doing to fix the problem?
Gillian Hadfield, a Professor of Law and Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California, says they aren’t doing enough. In a Quartz article, Hadfield argues that American law schools are continuously letting students down.
“Law schools in the US today have become depressingly single-purpose: training members of a closed profession and failing to equip them to tackle the full breadth of problems facing economies and societies that are undergoing extensive transformations,” Hadfield says.
The result? Hadfield says schools have produced “an insulated and out-of-touch conveyor-belt profession that has become too complex, too expensive, and too disconnected from the realities people and businesses face.”
In his Quartz article, Hadfield lays out a step-by-step process that law schools should take if they intend on fixing the legal education.
1.) Shift to an approach that emphasizes testing what people can actually do before they enter practice.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the American Bar Association (ABA) raised the “quality and uniformity” of legal education with a monopoly on law school accreditation and professional regulation. While the “top down” approach worked for the 20th century, Hadfield argues that it has now “put a stranglehold on the ability of law to adapt to a vastly transformed world.”
Hadfield argues that the influence of the ABA should be reduced and universities should be given the responsibility of determining the best ways for producing quality lawyers. “The profession should focus on its remit of ensuring legal services providers are useful, competent and honest, and leave it up to universities, colleges, and other training organizations to find the best way to produce people who meet those standards,” Hadfield says.
A shift like this, Hadfield argues, can open up more opportunities for law practices. According to The Legal Services Board, a similar approach is already in the process of being implemented in the United Kingdom, where “people who want a career in law can choose from nine different professional paths, three of which lead to a license to provide full legal services and none of which requires a law degree,” Hadfield says. “In fact, people can qualify to practice some types of law without even going to university.”
Shifting the approach and reducing the influence of the ABA, Hadfield argues, will allow a more “democratic” law education that attracts new ideas essential to law.
2.) Shift from an emphasis on book knowledge to practical wisdom in establishing the requirements for licensure.
The benchmark that the law industry currently uses tests individuals on their book knowledge of the law. Hadfield argues that this emphasis on book knowledge should be shifted to an emphasis on practical wisdom.
“At the highest levels, law is a learned profession—and it should remain intellectually demanding and informed by philosophy, economics, history, political science, and more,” Hadfield says. “But that is not the appropriate benchmark against which to establish the minimum thresholds needed to ensure widespread consumer and commercial confidence.”
Rather, Hadfield argues, the law industry should take a similar approach to the model that medicine follows: test students early in their educational careers. By testing early in students’ educational careers, the benchmark can “then focus ultimate qualification on candidates’ ability to actually listen to solve real legal problems encountered by real clients.”
3.) Move away from the idea that one-size fits all when it comes to legal training and competence.
Research shows that “licensed providers of basic services provide just as good if not higher quality.” According to an IFF Research study, “wills drafted by licensed solicitors were just as likely (25%) to have errors in them as those drafted by specialist will-writing companies that are not required to hold a license.”
Hadfield argues that the “one-size fits all” approach to legal training in the U.S. doesn’t correlate to competent legal service. “As the UK has found, law degrees and licensing are not necessary to achieve adequate competence and consumer protection for all forms of legal help,” he says.
The U.S. has seen a massive decline in students choosing to pursue a law career in recent years. Hadfield argues that law education reform is necessary if the industry hopes to “bring benefits in the form of economic growth, access to justice, and ongoing legal innovation to meet the challenges of the 21st century, as well as reducing the burden of debt on the next generation of legal professionals.”