American Bar Association / ABA, Bar Exams, Law Schools

The ABA Is Coming Around on Reforming Legal Education

We give law schools a lot of grief around here for being too expensive and not recognizing the true value of their product.

I’m new here and maybe not as jaded as others (read: Elie), but in a world where more and more Biglaw practical legal work is farmed out to temp attorneys, these sky-high tuitions are simply unwarranted. And for the most part, the ABA has backed them up.

But now the ABA has joined the chorus.

The ABA created the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education last year. Its two-year mission: to seek out new models for legal education. Well, they’re trying to turn in their report a year early (damn gunners!), and based on the testimony the committee collected there are some interesting ideas out there. But forgive my pessimism in thinking that this report will boldly go where pretty much every report on law schools has gone before.

But let’s look at the ideas that are out there….

The New York Times recaps the proposals:

At the task force’s hearing, where lawyers and students gave testimony, most said the time was ripe for that change.

Many recommended reducing the core of law school to two years from three to cut costs. Others suggested that college juniors should be encouraged to go directly to law school, the bar exam should be simplified, accreditation standards should be relaxed to allow for more experiential learning, and states should establish training for the legal equivalent of nurse practitioners.

Cutting law school to two years is such a good idea that Lat already wrote about it in 2011. The third year of law school can have tremendous value to the extent students take clinics to gather real-world, practical experience. But for most, it’s a dreary tread through a couple semesters of “Law and…” courses.

It’s unclear to me why encouraging juniors to go to law school is going to help the system. Do they mean in lieu of their senior year? Like declaring early for the draft? Other than trading one year of undergraduate debt for a year of law school debt, this idea doesn’t accomplish much.

Simplifying the bar exam is an intriguing idea for the practice, but that opens up a lot of quality control issues. One idea that I’ve had — and that I didn’t see in coverage of the ABA meeting — is replacing the bar exam entirely with a certification system. Why does an M&A associate need to cram New York family law into her head before forgetting it forever after the test? A system that required prospective lawyers to attain a certificate of mastery over their chosen field (or multiple certificates if the lawyer really wants to generalize) would make a lot more sense — and help convince the world that the profession doesn’t need a three-year curriculum to “cover all the bases.”

Relaxing accreditation standards? Sure, but this seems like a recipe for creating diploma mill law schools. That can’t be good.

And finally, creating a nurse practitioner equivalent has been done before. It’s also a giant kick in the groin to all the unemployed lawyers out there who earned their degree — and their debt — and now find that someone just out of college is doing their job for $30/hour. Expanding access to legal education should probably start with creating a legal landscaper where the glut of lawyers out there are able to charge less (read: make law school cheaper and forgive some debts).

But the fact that the ABA recognizes the problem is good news, and its report will hopefully ruffle some feathers. But at the end of the day:

As the meeting ended, one task force member, Michael P. Downey of St. Louis, summed it up. “The house is on fire,” he said. “We don’t want a report that sits on a shelf.”

And unfortunately, shelves are where reports challenging entrenched interests tend to end up.

A Call for Drastic Changes in Educating New Lawyers [New York Times]
Task Force On The Future of Legal Education [American Bar Association]

Earlier: Really Weak Arguments For Going To Law School: The Small Law School Edition
The Broken Law School Model: What Is To Be Done?

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