American Bar Association / ABA, Canada, Conferences / Symposia, Education / Schools, Law Professors, Law School Deans, Law Schools, New York Times

Will American Law Schools Adapt To The Changing Legal Market? Ever? Do They Even Care?

Even people inside the Ivory Tower can tell that legal education needs serious reform.

I just got back from the International Legal Ethics Conference in Banff, Alberta. I feel like I literally just got back, since WestJet made an atrocious decision to detour a direct Calgary to Newark flight — full of people who had already cleared U.S. Customs — to Toronto, where we were trapped on the tarmac for six hours.

In any event, the ILEC conference was full of law professors from just about everywhere. I enjoyed many discussions about how the next generation of lawyers are being trained. I’m happy to report that a lot of the professors I talked to understood that one of the big problems facing American law students is the out-of-control cost of legal education. And I spoke to many American professors who understood that high professorial salaries are partially responsible for the runaway cost of tuition. There were lots of innovative ideas about how to make legal education cheaper for students, and more useful for clients.

Unfortunately, while there are many great ideas out there, the 800-pound gorilla is the restrictive American Bar Association, and it didn’t even have to bother being in the room for everybody to feel its weight. The ABA is perhaps the only organization in the world that doesn’t understand that the American legal education system is horribly flawed.

If the ABA could get a clue, there are a lot of people willing to go into the laboratory and experiment with new ideas. I was at ILEC on a panel about whether or not law should be an undergraduate degree. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but the ABA needs to realize that almost anything is better than the current system.

You don’t have to listen to me, you can listen to the New York Times….

The New York Times did another piece this Sunday, reminding people that law school is a terrible investment right now. I like these articles because I think parents of prospective law students read them and for maybe the first time in their lives realize that pushing little Johnny into law school might not be a smart idea. Really, anything that makes Baby Boomers think about the future of their children is a good thing.

The article in the NYT’s Sunday Review by Lincoln Caplan is kind of an overview of all the bad news coming out of law schools right now. Regular readers of Above the Law have heard all of the statistics before, but Caplan says the numbers are causing an “existential crisis” for law schools:

Law schools have hustled to compensate for these shifts by trying to make it look as if their graduates are more marketable, even hiring them as research assistants to offer temporary employment. But those strategies won’t fix legal education, particularly when students are starting to see that a high-priced degree, financed by mountains of loans, may never pay off. The number of people taking law school admissions tests fell 24 percent in the last two years, to the lowest level in a decade. Law schools will be crushed if they don’t remake themselves, said Frank Wu, dean of Hastings College of the Law at the University of California in San Francisco. “This is Detroit in the 1970s: change or die.”

At the ILEC, the crisis wasn’t viewed as an existential question, but a practical one. There are systems of legal education out in the real world right now that are doing a better job of training marketable lawyers either more quickly, more cheaply, or both. I spoke on a panel chaired by Ian Holloway, dean of the law school at the University of Calgary. It was organized by Russell Pearce, a professor at Fordham Law. Also on the panel were Swethaa Ballakrishnen, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who has an Indian law degree and a Harvard LL.M, and Dr. Asher Alkoby who is an associate dean and law professor at Ryerson University.

Professor Pearce’s idea is to make law an undergraduate degree (as it is in the U.K. and some other Commonwealth countries). He believes that lowering the barriers of entry into the profession is the best way to deliver legal services to the low-income Americans who desperately need representation, but are being under-served by the highly indebted lawyers our system currently produces.

Once you lower barriers to entry, you lower the cost of the education. If you accept that lowering the cost is a good thing, then there are many ways you can go about it. Ballakrishnen talked about the Indian system, where law is a five-year program you start as an undergraduate and finish when you are still in your early twenties. She noted that such a system is great for people who are not sure they want to be practicing lawyers. They can still get a good education, but are young enough and economically unburdened enough to change course should they decide that practicing law is not for them. Dean Holloway noted that because of a joint program Calgary has with the University of Houston, it’s actually cheaper for an American student to get “two J.D.s” (one in Canada, one in Texas) at Calgary’s prices than it is for most students to get one J.D. at an American law school. There are as many law students, per capita, in Canada as there are in the U.S., but because Canada does it through their public university system, it’s a lot cheaper there than it is in the United States.

Surprisingly, I was probably the person on the panel most resistant to the idea that law should be an undergraduate degree. Or maybe my stance isn’t surprising to regular readers of ATL who know that occasionally I can turn into an elitist prick….

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