Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Illinois State Bar Association: Special Committee Report--Wrap Up And A Challenge

The Illinois State Bar Association: Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Debt on the Delivery of Legal Services: Final Report & Recommendations should become a key document in legal education reform. While I do not agree with all of its recommendations, especially the ones on greater use of adjuncts and distance learning, it has many ideas that need to be implemented by the federal government, the ABA, state bar associations, law schools, and the legal profession.

To close this discussion, I would like to quote the part of the Report concerning the need for change:

"The root of the problem is the cost structure of the model of legal education that dominates all ABA-accredited law schools today. . . . law schools are not using the tuition law students pay to prepare them adequately for practice. Instead, much of the tuition purchases additional academic scholarship through the employment and support of traditional tenured faculty members. . . . Today, most law professors teach fewer than twelve credit hours each year (approximately three courses, or 1.5 courses per semester), and many teach fewer than ten. In addition, most classes taught by traditional faculty members include little assessment beyond the final exam, thus sparing the professor additional grading and assessment responsibilities. . . . Even as the salaries of law professors have risen, therefore, those professors have contributed less time to teaching law students. . . . Moreover, the focus on academic scholarship prevents law schools from focusing on the time-intensive instruction techniques that are necessary to educate new lawyers. . . . . In particular, law schools do not provide adequate opportunities for law students to practice legal writing skills in simulated or real practical settings."

"Any reform must therefore focus on reorienting law schools toward the education of lawyers for practice and away from the production of academic scholarship." While there has been increased skills training at many law schools, "the problem is that skills training has grown alongside traditional faculty and course offerings, rather than replacing them, so that the expansion of skills training has contributed to rising tuition."

For specifics, the Report quotes Daniel Thies (Rethinking Legal Education in Hard Times: The Recession, Practical Legal Education, and the New Job Market, 59 J. LEGAL EDUC. 598, 612-13 (2010)): Th[e] addition of a skills curriculum without cuts elsewhere has been one of the major drivers of tuition increases at law schools over the last several decades. For example, between 1977 and 1988, law schools’ expenditures on in-house clinical education rose by 92.5 percent, while the overall increase in law school expenditures was nearly twice as much, at 173.9 percent. Far from raising funds for skills education by decreasing other expenditures, therefore, law schools continued to increase funding in other areas by an even greater amount. A significant chunk of this increase in funding has gone to subsidize academic research, an enhancement that does little to improve the practical abilities of students. In this way, law schools can pay lip service to skills training while maintaining a true emphasis on faculty research and writing and protecting their ‘prestige’ score in the U.S. News rankings."

In sum, "Rather than merely adding practice-oriented courses on top of the existing cost structure, law schools must learn to integrate skills training with the traditional doctrinal curriculum." (This is a point I have been making for several years.)

The Report concludes, " Many have recognized that the law school debt crisis imposes an unacceptable burden on young lawyers and law students. As this report makes plain, the burden does not stop there, but extends to the most vulnerable in our society in need of legal services. Because of excessive debt, too many poor and middle class citizens lack reliable access to affordable legal services. That reality makes the crisis more urgent than if it affected only lawyers. The high calling of public service has always galvanized the best from the bar, the bench, and the academy to promote justice, defend liberty, secure the rule of law, and ensure the highest quality legal representation to all. The law school debt crisis and the challenge of developing a new model of legal education present yet another opportunity for the legal profession to work together for the common good."

In sum, the Report contains some harsh words for law schools, legal educators, and the legal profession. However, it is merely noting the realities of the modern legal world. We should follow its recommendations now for the good of our law students and for the public at large. I hope that the Illinois State Bar Association will take the lead in implementing these recommendations.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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