Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013: The Legal Education Year in Review I

Despite the continuing financial problems of law schools and the legal profession in general, there were many advances in legal education reform in 2013. Part of this was due to the fact that even more law schools and legal educators have recognized the urgent need to reform legal education. (here) (I have provided links to the Legal Skills Prof Blog and other sources for those who would like to read more about a particular item.)

I. The ABA and State Bars.

Probably the most important advances came from the ABA and state bars, which issued reports on and, in one case, mandated changes in legal education. The California Bar enacted a provision that requires "15 units of practice-based, experiential course work or an apprenticeship equivalent during law school, 50 hours of legal services devoted to pro bono or modest means clients prior to admission or in the first two years of practice and 10 additional MCLE hours focused on law practice competency training." (here) Similarly, The ABA Council on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has sent out for notice and comment a proposal to require 15 hours of clinics, simulations, or externships. (here)

The ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education issued a draft report and recommendations, then a final Report. (here and here) The Report advocated changing the culture at law schools, noted the unfairness of the conditional scholarship/tuition model ("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."), and recommended allowing more heterogeneity among law schools.

In a comprehensive study, an Illinois state bar panel recommended that law schools focus more on practical skills and teaching, less on publishing and scholarship. (here, here and here) The report also recommended that Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should place reasonable limits on the amounts law students can borrow from the federal government; Congress should restrict federal loan eligibility to law schools whose graduates meet certain employment and debt-repayment outcomes, rather than allowing all accredited law schools to enroll students receiving federal student loans; the government should ensure that funds available in the loan programs are targeted to the students most in need; law schools must have the ability to experiment with new models of legal education to find the best ways to control costs while still delivering a quality education; and the schools themselves must place more emphasis on practice-oriented courses and focus more in the second and third years on helping students transition to practice through apprenticeships, practical courses, etc. I think the key sentence in the Report was "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."

The Wisconsin bar association issued a task force report on the challenges facing new lawyers. (here) The task force acknowledged that it had initially underestimated the degree to which new law grads are struggling to find gainful employment as well as pay off their student loans. "Anecdotally, we all know that new lawyers are having difficulty coming out of law school with student debt and finding jobs, or finding jobs that pay enough to service the debt," said board chair Sherry Coley, also a task force co-chair. "But I don’t think we really knew the extent of the problem. That was the biggest surprise for me." 

Finally, the New York City Bar association issued a report (here) The Report stated that experiential experience was critical to today’s law school graduates. The Report declared, "In the modern legal environment, the ‘practice-ready’ lawyer must have experience identifying and solving problems, navigating the legal system, and exercising professional judgment under conditions of uncertainty. We also believe that writing and professional responsibility remain under-taught and insufficiently integrated into the curriculum, although these topics have received substantial attention from reformers in recent years." The Report also criticized law schools reliance on U.S. News rankings. 

II. Law Schools and Classes.

Several law schools made important changes in their curriculum in 2013. Denver University began an Experiential Advantage Curriculum, which will allow students to spend a full year of their law school career in real or simulated practice settings. (here) Case Western Reserve School of Law also made changes in its curriculum, which "will require students to write more, work with clients beginning their first semester and spend at least a semester during their third year in an externship or clinical position." (here) Whittier Law School launched a new experimental training program "in which students develop practical skills integrated with legal knowledge starting from the first day of law school. In fact, 29 units — more than half of the curriculum’s 56 required units — will integrate experiential learning." (here) William Mitchell launched a part-time hybrid program, which combines face-to-face instruction with online courses. (here) NYU enhanced its third year by setting up NYU Law-designed and managed programs for its students to study in Buenos Aires, Paris, and Shanghai, as well as, other initiatives. (here) It will also double the number of clinical skills it is offering. Finally, many law schools are now teaching business skills. For example, NYLS started a program to teach students corporate law skills. (here)

In law school news, one of the biggest stories of the year was Washington & Lee, both for the success of its experiential third year program and its poor job placement statistics. (here; here; here) Campbell Law School demonstrated that a practical curriculum can help boost bar exam pass rates. (here)  Another major story this year was the Reinvent Law Program at Michigan State. (here). This program aims to teach students how to meld technology and the law in order to deliver the legal services of the future.  Finally, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock named legal education reform leader, Michael Hunter Schwartz, as its new dean. (here)

Finally, the most innovative course award goes to Rip Verkerke at UVA. (here) Here is a partial description of his contracts course: "Now Verkerke records most of his lectures sitting at his desk in his office while navigating PowerPoint slides for students to view at home. Class time is primarily reserved for problem-solving exercises, small-group discussions, and making sure students understand the materials and lectures they covered at night. The course is supported not only by a binder of collected readings, but also a website that allows Verkerke to post materials, administer quizzes and participate in online discussion forums."

(Scott Fruehwald)

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