Paul L. Caron

Friday, August 2, 2013

ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education Releases Working Paper

ABA Logo 2The ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education yesterday released a 34-page working paper:

Some highlights of our conclusions are:

  • Law school education is funded through a complex system of tuition, discounting, and loans. Schools announce standard tuition rates, and then chase students with high LSAT scores by offering substantial discounts without much regard to financial need. Other students receive little if any benefit from discounting and must rely mainly on borrowing to finance their education. The net result is that students whose credentials (and likely job prospects) are the weakest incur large debt to sustain the school budget and enable higher-credentialed students to attend at little cost. These practices drive up both tuition and debt, and they are in need of serious re-engineering.
  • The system of accreditation administered by the ABA Section of Legal Education has served the profession and the nation well. But it has come to sustain a far higher level of standardization in legal education than may be necessary to turn out capable lawyers. The ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools also impose requirements that add expense without conferring commensurate benefits. We conclude that the section would serve the public interest by enabling more heterogeneity among law schools. The Task Force recommends that a number of the Standards be dramatically revised or repealed.
  • The ABA’s accreditation system should facilitate substantial innovations in law school programs better than it does today. The current procedures under which schools can seek to vary from ABA Standards in order to pursue experiments are completely confidential and fairly narrow in practice. The Task Force recommends that the ABA Section open its variance processes to full public view and use the variance system energetically as an avenue to foster experimentation by law schools.
  • The profession’s calls for more attention to skills training and experiential learning have been well-taken, and law schools have done much to expand such opportunities for students. There is need to do more. The balance between doctrinal instruction and hands-on training needs to shift still further toward the core competencies needed by people who will deliver legal services to clients.
  • State supreme courts, state bar associations, and admitting authorities should devise additional frameworks for licensing providers of legal services, such as licensing limited practitioners or authorizing bar admission for people whose preparation is not in the traditional three-year classroom mold.

The Task Force has resolved these challenges by structuring the Working Paper as a field manual for people of good faith who wish to improve legal education as a public and private good. It is designed to guide the activities of these participants within the scope of their respective responsibility and influence. The heart of the field manual is Section VII, which is addressed to all parties in the system of legal education. Key themes detailed in Section VII are the need for a systematic (rather than tactical) approach to the deficiencies of law school financing and pricing; greater heterogeneity in law schools and in programs of legal education; an increased focus on the delivery of value by law schools; a focus on the development of competences in graduates of legal education programs; the profound importance of cultural change, particularly on the part of law faculty; the need for changes in the regulation of legal services to support key changes in legal education; and the need for institutionalization of the process of assessment and improvement in legal education, commenced in this Working Paper.

Section VIII contains recommendations for specific actions by various participants in the legal education system to implement these themes.

Other sections of this Working Paper contain analyses that provide context for the recommendations of Sections VII and VIII, and a set of tools that persons, groups, and organizations can use in initiatives designed to bring about improvement.

The Task Force believes that if the participants in legal education continue to act in good faith, and with an appreciation of the urgency of coordinated change, on the recommendations presented here, significant benefits for students, society, and the system of legal education can be brought about quickly, and a foundation can be established for continuous adaptation and improvement.

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