Paul Horwitz (Alabama), Using the Diploma Privilege to Reflect on What We Do and What We Ought to Do:
I suspect most readers would agree that the ABA Journal gets worse every year, perhaps understandably. (It costs money to put out a good journal, among other things. And the market for eyeballs has gotten fiercer.) But I thought this article, which I found via Paul Caron's blog, was pretty good. There has been a good deal of both sincere and strategic invocation of Wisconsin's diploma privilege of late as we look to alternatives to the bar exam in the short and long term. But those invocations are often heavier on citation than on detail. This article quotes Wisconsin lawyers and educators on why they think the diploma privilege works in their state. It could do more still, but it's a good start. (Its author, Stephanie Francis Ward, deserves credit by name.) In doing so, it reflects, and allows reflection, on what lawyers need and on what is needed to train them--and, by contrast, on what we actually do to train them. ...
I offer no strong conclusions. My goal is simply to suggest that the article provides food for thought about what the Wisconsin lawyers and educators think works about their setup and why, and thus about what law schools in general ought to be doing--and what they are actually doing. I can't help but note a certain irony or tension in the current circumstances, in which we are both urging something like an emergency diploma privilege approach and have chosen to adopt pass-fail grading for the semester--with, I am guessing, an assumption or instruction on the part of most schools and professors that few if any students should actually be given a failing grade. We are thus simultaneously using the gatekeeper approach to justify current emergency measures and moving even further away from actually acting as gatekeepers. I'm not criticizing this, or not overmuch. We deal with sudden circumstances as best we can. And much of the movement quickly turned in the direction of supervised rather than unrestricted practice. (Although, on this point, it's worth noting the Wisconsin lawyer regulation official's quote identifying a "poor or nonexistent mentor" as a leading cause of disciplinary trouble. A proper system of supervised practice demands that we give thought to what sound supervision actually requires and impose meaningful and costly demands on both the supervised and the supervisor.)
But in thinking about longer-term models, we ought to think about what we need to be doing and how it differs from what we do currently. We ought to understand the role of things like compassion more precisely, as a way of dealing with people and their problems and getting the most and best out of them, and not mistake it for the absence of high standards or an unwillingness to make hard and painful decisions--including the decision that someone doesn't belong in law school or in practice. We should avoid the temptation of wanting to be liked, or likable, or popular, especially by leaving the unpopular jobs for someone else: bar examiners, or character and fitness committees, or disciplinary bodies. We shouldn't necessarily keep the features we have now--cheap exam methods, light tenure standards, high graduation rates, large classes, multiplying non-degree programs, aping other academic departments, or what have you. We certainly shouldn't retain them simply because we like them, or because they make us feel like academics and not professional trainers, or because they will ensure that fewer schools go out of business, even if there are independent and plausible justifications for those features. This seems like an excellent time to reflect on what we do and what we should do, and to think about ways we can make life more demanding and less pleasant for law professors and law schools, and perhaps even for law students.