Paul L. Caron

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ex-Dean: The Problem With Legal Education: The ABA

ABA Logo 2Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Perverse Incentives of the Lawyers Guild: While Law School Enrollment Drops, ABA Rules Bust the Budgets, by James L. Huffman (Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark):

Law schools are in trouble. Applications are down almost 50% to an estimated 54,000 this year from 100,000 in 2004. Little wonder. According to the National Association for Law Placement, barely 65% of 2011 graduates had landed law-related employment within nine months of graduation, the lowest rate since NALP began reporting in 1985. Even the 65% number is suspect, given the powerful, rankings-driven incentives schools have to cook the figures. Meanwhile, many of the unemployed graduates have law-school debt exceeding $100,000.

It is a true crisis, and law schools are scrambling to figure out how to manage with fewer tuition-paying students. Law-school budgets have soared for several decades as faculties multiplied, salaries rose and facilities became ever grander. With annual tuition approaching or even exceeding $40,000 at most schools, even a dozen fewer students a year blows a $500,000 hole in the budget.

Riding to the rescue is the ABA's Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. The task force's assignment is to study and make recommendations addressing the economics, delivery and regulation of legal education.

The ABA should start by looking within: The organization is a major source of the problem. Those large law-school faculties with some of the highest salaries in the academy, the palatial facilities, a persistent emphasis on theory instead of practical-skills training, and a limited reliance on online instruction have all been encouraged, if not mandated, by ABA regulations and the accreditation process. As often happens with regulatory systems, whether governmental or professional, the ABA accreditation process was long ago captured by legal education's most influential stakeholders. ...

The ABA's influence over the accreditation process has come at a significant cost to legal educators. In return for the gift of better facilities, greater job security and a job description of their own design, they have had to accept an inevitable proliferation of rules limiting their ability to experiment, innovate and respond to the changing realities of 21st century law practice.

There is a way out. Instead of the one-size-fits-all approach the ABA has taken for decades, what is needed is some creative competition for the declining pool of prospective students.

The ABA should free law schools from most of the existing standards and encourage them to draw on the enormous intellectual power of their faculties to design and test innovative approaches—and let a thousand flowers bloom. The ABA's role should be limited to assuring that prospective students and legal employers get full and honest information about what could become a bonanza of legal education alternatives.

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