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Vol. 38, No. 4

NCBP Midyear plenary takes up issue of legal education reform

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“Many of today’s lawyers really don’t understand what’s happening in legal education.” That’s according to David M. Schraver, president of the New York State Bar Association, who has made the crisis in legal education the centerpiece of his term.

In a plenary at the 2014 Midyear Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, Schraver was joined by: Hon. Randall T. Shepard, chair of the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education; Joseph Dunn, CEO/executive director of the State Bar of California; Hon. Ann B. Jorgensen, co-chair of the Illinois State Bar Association Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Debt on the Delivery of Legal Services; and Tremaine “Teddy” Reese, a member of the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.


The panelists—and moderator Carl D. Smallwood, current NCBP president and past president of the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association—all agreed that key in stemming the crisis in legal education is educating current lawyers who may have no idea how things have changed since they passed the bar.

The grim statistics regarding student loan debt and scarcity of jobs may be well known, but some may not know that law school tuition has been rising at more than double the rate of inflation, Shepard said. Meanwhile, he added, the trend has been away from need-based financial aid and toward merit-based—meaning a big discount for those with the highest LSAT scores and “a big sticker price” for everyone else.

Student loan debt now outpaces housing debt, Shepard said, noting that the system in which the majority of law students essentially bankroll the education for the elite students greatly exacerbates the problem.

Lest anyone believe this is only a problem for the lower half of the class, Jorgensen shared the story of one recent law grad she knows: She graduated in the top 2 percent of her class, yet the best job she was able to find was $28-per-hour document review work on a contract basis.

One major hurdle, Jorgensen believes, is that regardless of class ranking, new law grads “do not have the skills and training to compete,” and no employer wants to take on the task of bridging the gap. “They all want the kid with three to five years of experience—that someone else has provided,” she said.

Diversity in peril

Reese, who graduated in 2012, said that many recent law grads now actively discourage college and high school students from pursuing law as a career. That anecdote is borne out by statistics: Shepard noted that over the past three years, the number of law school applicants has “plummeted” from 100,000 to 57,000.

And who’s not applying? Disproportionately, it’s women (of any race or ethnicity) and people of color, Jorgensen said, noting that these students also carry much higher debt than others if they do go to law school. Reese, who is African-American and the first in his family to graduate from college, disclosed that he is more than $200,000 in debt and that he feels somewhat deceived by the message he always heard about the American dream and how it can be achieved through higher education.

Between those who leave the profession because they can’t make enough to cover their debt and those who never apply to law school in the first place, Jorgensen believes the profession is headed for another crisis related to the one in legal education.

Put simply, she said, “The benefits of past efforts to increase diversity in our profession hang in the balance.”

How do we fix it?

The panelists agreed that bar associations can and should play a big role in addressing the crisis in legal education. Those at mandatory bars should tap into their regulatory power and “use it,” Dunn advised. “Be bold.” The State Bar of California is very much a regulatory agency; a special committee is currently developing an implementation plan for the following requirements for the state’s new lawyers:

  1. 15 units (250 hours, total) in practice-based, experiential coursework prior to admission to practice. A bar-approved externship, clerkship, or apprenticeship—during or after law school completion—can fulfill some or all of these required units.
  2. 50 hours of pro bono or modest means service, before or after admission.
  3. 10 hours of practice-oriented MCLE courses after admission. Alternatively, credits toward those hours can also be earned by participating in a mentoring program.

But this isn’t just a unified bar issue, Shepard said; voluntary bars, too, have “considerable influence over what the court does.” Whoever the licensing body is in your state, Jorgensen recommended asking them what the goal and purpose is behind certain licensing requirements, and whether they’re still working.

Jorgensen has a wish list for law schools that includes some changes in ABA accreditation requirements. Here’s what she’d like to see:

  • Lower limits on the amount students can borrow. When loan amounts go up, so does tuition, she said.
  • A less stringent accreditation requirement for the size of the law school library, since so much legal research is now done online.
  • Less emphasis on “exotic” courses with star professors, and more on core courses and practical courses taught by adjuncts. Over and over, she said, the ISBA special committee heard, “Teach me law office management.”
  • Internships and other clinical experiences for every student—it’s not enough, she believes, to tout that there are 20 clinic slots for 100 students.
  • Writing instruction at every level.
  • Jorgensen put special stress on this point: In tenure requirements, she’d like to see “less emphasis on scholarship and publication,” which tend to isolate professors from students.

Shepard, who agrees that lawyers and judges have significant power as far as determining who gets a legal license and what’s required, would like the ABA accreditation standards to allow “more differentiation among law schools,” with some requirements repealed so schools can try new models that might better meet students’ needs.

One radically new model, he noted, is the two-year law school idea advocated by President Obama. Shepard said this would require a lot of discussion regarding what a four-semester program would look like, whether it’s feasible, and whether students could emerge ready to serve clients well. Still, he noted, the six-semester model is a design of the early 20th century, and it may not be the only way.

Right now, Reese said, “the third year is somewhat of a waste.” He wondered whether bar associations could help place 3Ls in public defenders offices or other types of public service. Reese would also like for bar associations to be much more visible in law schools—and to interact with students, not just deans. Many of his classmates said they never saw the bar association at school, he noted; a table in the lobby or some networking opportunities would have been welcome.

“The rubber meets the road at the state bars,” Reese said, adding that he hoped attendees would leave the plenary ready to work together to improve conditions for law students and recent grads. “We need advocates,” he stressed. “People in seats of power.” Speaking of informal networks that many recent grads have set up via blogs and social media, Reese said, “Right now, I’ll tell you: We feel like all we have is each other.”

An ongoing effort

Shepard noted that the ABA task force has issued its final report but will spend the next six months talking to all interested parties about next steps in fixing what’s broken in legal education.

Schraver, too, said his work is far from over. At NYSBA’s annual meeting, held shortly before the NCBP Midyear Meeting, he convened a presidential summit on this topic, featuring Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, ABA President James R. Silkenat, law school deans, an associate justice, and small-firm practitioners. More than 400 people attended, and Schraver found that law schools were eager to participate.

“They know they need to get students practice or profession ready,” he said.

In May, Schraver said, the bar will hold a full-day convocation on this topic; he’s also been talking to local bars, lawyers, and law schools, in recognition that there’s likely no one-size-fits-all solution.

In addition to talking about legal education, Jorgensen urged taking action. “We must act soon,” she said. “We must act swiftly to stem the damage that’s been done.”

Speaking for himself and other recent graduates, Reese had an even more urgent plea: “Please don’t give up.”