Three Solutions That Could Save Legal Education
Law graduates today have a harder time getting employed than their previous counterparts.
It’s no recent news that the job outlook for law grads is at an all-time low. In 2016, U.S. News & World Report reported that class of 2015 law grads locked down fewer private practice jobs than any graduating class in nearly two decades. The last time employment metrics were that low was 1996, a time when the U.S. had 25 million fewer workers than it does today, according to U.S. News.
So what exactly are law schools doing to evolve the law school education?
In a recent Martin Center article, Chris West, a fellow there, highlights three innovations that might help save the law school from itself.
“As can be expected in such a chaotic environment, innovations are appearing in response to the distortions and market shifts,” West writes. “Whether they are actual solutions to the most important problems remain to be seen; it may be that the legal industry and its academic component need much more dramatic and fundamental changes for solutions to occur.”
The Acceptance of the GRE
One big change that West highlights is the acceptance of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as an admissions test for law schools in lieu of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). While both the GRE and LSAT test language skills, critical reading, and logical reasoning, the GRE also tests quantitative skills that the LSAT doesn’t.
West argues that the acceptance of the GRE has opened up doors to a wider pool of applicants.
“Permitting applicants to submit GRE scores will shift admissions toward those who have majored in science or technical programs,” West writes. “This will help address the growing demand for lawyers who are familiar with technology since it is increasingly important as both an area of litigation in such matters as patent law and as a tool for lawyers to uncover and present evidence.”
So far, 20 law schools have announced plans to begin accepting the GRE in lieu of the LSAT. Among some of those schools are Harvard Law, Columbia Law, Georgetown Law, and UPenn.
The Universal Bar Exam (UBE)
Under current regulations, law graduates intending on practicing law are required to pass state-specific American Bar Association tests by their respective state.
West highlights a possible solution that will allow more law grads to practice the law – the Universal Bar Exam (UBE). Passing the UBE would allow attorneys to gain entrance to any participating State Bar, West says. Since 2006, 29 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to adopt the UBE.
“Reciprocity between states increases the value of a job-seeker’s law degree by removing the bureaucratic hurdle of requiring exams specific to each state,” West argues. “At the same time, it makes legal services more affordable by increasing competition as clients have more law firms from which to choose.”
Yet, West also highlights some of the criticisms surrounding the UBE. Many critics argue that testing attorneys based on a “universal” national standard may be a threat to federalism, which according to West, allows government to operate at different levels and allows states the sovereignty to make their own laws. But, West says, there are benefits to the UBE.
“Testing attorneys from different states and regions using standards applicable to many states may incentivize law schools to train attorneys more broadly and with a more shallow understanding of state laws,” he writes. “After all, questions about each state’s laws are less likely to show up on a universal bar exam.”
In the founding days of the legal industry, the only requirement to become a lawyer was having “good moral character,” according to Erin Thompson of TomDispatch.
“Before the turn of the twentieth century, the vast majority of America’s lawyers had never attended the few law schools that then existed,” Thompson writes. “Instead, like Abe Lincoln, most apprenticed in a lawyer’s office and read up on state laws before passing a short oral bar exam. Apprentices had to persuade a lawyer to take them on, had to pay him, and could not perform other work to support themselves while apprenticing.”
Now, in order to combat the high tuition of law schools, experts are trying to reintroduce the idea of legal apprenticeship programs. A number of states including Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and California have already begun allowing aspiring attorneys to skip law school and go straight into a law apprenticeship program.
“Generally, an apprenticeship program places an aspiring lawyer in the office of an attorney or judge after some foundational legal coursework,” West writes. “Just as each state has different requirements to practice law, each legal apprenticeship program differs greatly based on the ABA requirements in the state, the market in that area, and the needs of their students.”
Yet, the legal apprenticeship idea has seen limited success, West says. He notes how the overall national bar passage rate for legal apprentices is as low as 28%. For traditional law graduates, bar passage rates average around 78%.
West highlights one exception among this statistic: the state of Washington’s “Law Clerks Program.”
“With the support of the state bar association, a volunteer board sets standards and assigns a liaison to a pair of lawyer-apprentices,” West explains. “Participants are also assigned a mentor to track progress as they prepare to take the bar exam.”
The Law Clerks Program has seen immense success in comparison to other legal apprenticeship programs. According to West, of the law clerks who took the Washington bar last year, 67% passed.
“One factor that limits the number of people who can become lawyers through apprenticeships in Washington is a rule that, upon completion of the program, participants may be officially employed by the office in which they studied, though there is no guarantee of employment,” West writes.
These three solutions are by no means the only solutions to saving the legal education, West says. But they’re a start.
“Innovations in the legal field are welcome and necessary, but only time will tell whether the three discussed here will prove fruitful,” he writes.
Sources: James G Martin Center, U.S. News, Tipping the Scales, TomDispatch
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