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A dose of reality for law schools, students

Clifford's Notes, Chicago Lawyer November 6, 2013

By Robert A. Clifford

The issue of producing quality law students for graduation is a continuing problem. It was addressed in depth by the Illinois State Bar Association and, most recently, by the American Bar Association, the entity that accredits law schools. At the ABA annual meeting in San Francisco in August, the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education reported its recommendations to the board of governors, which included some needed changes. Following a year of research and hearings, the task force recommended that the financing of legal education should change; greater heterogeneity and differentiation in the courses of study is needed; and state Supreme Courts and regulators of lawyers and the practice of law should review ways to better the delivery of legal services.

The task force is drafting a report for comment and will submit a resolution and report to the ABA House of Delegates for consideration at the February 2014 midyear meeting in Chicago. There is no question that the legal profession needs to get more involved in helping students decide whether to enter law school and what to do after they graduate. For too long, law schools have been allowed to unleash too many lawyers for too few jobs without, most importantly, telling students upfront about the realistic prospects of employment.

Just the other day, a colleague said he advertised for a lawyer to do part-time legal research for his small firm. Not only did he get lawyers desperately applying and even begging for the $10-an-hour job, he even had law school graduates from Harvard and The University of Chicago seeking to be hired. These students likely had not seen this coming when they took on three years of full-time study and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in 2010.

Now the admission numbers for law schools appear to be depressed. The Law School Admission Council found applications for 1L students were down for the third straight year or about 36 percent lower than 2010, with an accompanying 7 percent drop in enrollment for the incoming class of 2011. Data isn’t final for 2012.

I wrote about this in July2011 when U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wrote then-ABA President Stephen Zack about the cause for concern in a student’s ability to make an informed decision as to whether to attend law school, given the lack of obtaining a job after graduation.

Now that everyone seems to know about it, the discussion has changed to, "What are we going to do about it?"

That’s what the ABA and ISBA have been working on since then. Kent Syverud, chair of the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, has offered some observations on the matter: Pointing out that accreditation standards are minimum, not maximum, standards which "leave incredible leeway for law schools to do innovative things," a constant theme in the quest to fix what is wrong with law schools today.

Syverud added something that few regard as the reason for the high cost of legal education: "The painful truth is that the problem with costs is that law professors and deans are paid too much relative to the amount of work they do. … The whole problem of costs would go away tomorrow if our salaries were halved," he said as dean of Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. Still, he added "The future of legal education is bright."

On Aug. 9, the 21-member council met in San Francisco and agreed to a series of changes that Syverud described as "momentous" reform. Among the changes recommended by the council was eliminating the tenure requirement for doctrinal faculty and deans; making it easier for students to take online courses; getting rid of the minimum faculty size rule; and creating a clearer path for schools seeking variances from accreditation standards.

The ABA House of Delegates will vote on the recommended changes at the midyear meeting, but the council will have the final say on what changes will be made to the rules regarding accreditation of law schools. It appears it will be "loosening the reins on law schools," as the National Law Journal recently put it. ("Law Schools Gain Greater Autonomy," Aug. 19). In fact, a special panel discussing the future of legal education was presented at the San Francisco meeting to the House of Delegates.

All of this comes on the heels of a very thorough report issued by the ISBA during the presidency of John Thies. Last year, when he testified before the council, he talked about the impact that law school debt is having on law firms and particularly small firms and public interest positions that are unable to pay the salaries new attorneys need to manage their debt.

Although the faltering economy may be partly to blame for the situation in which law schools and its students now find themselves, it certainly is not the only reason as the economy appears to be recovering. Now that the air is clearing, the reasons also appear more clear as to what to do – and the picture doesn’t appear very pretty.

There still is much work to be done and much light to be shone on this problem before the profession finds satisfactory long-term solutions.

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