March 01, 2012

Views from the Chair: Challenging times

Irma S. Russell

Legal education has been in the news lately, and much of the focus is not positive. A series of New York Times articles over the last year by David Segal and others argues that today’s law schools fail to prepare students to practice law. Segal charges that the law school of today “cultivates a student’s capacity to reason and all but ignores the particulars of practice.” Michael Olivas, president of the Association of American Law Schools, calls the current state of financing for legal education a “burning theater.” Olivas sees recent developments as “literally threaten[ing] the enterprise” of legal education. Among them, he notes, are the cost of financing legal education, the difficult job market, and the likelihood of lower lawyer salaries in the future global market.

The impact of a changing economy on legal education presents law students, young lawyers, and practitioners with many challenges. In the United States, student loan interest rates have risen at the same time employment opportunities have decreased. Not surprisingly, applications to law schools dropped in 2011. A survey conducted by Anne M. Brandt, executive director of Education and Prelaw Programs and Member Support Services at the Law School Admissions Council, attracted responses from 143 of the 200 accredited U.S. law schools. Of the responding schools, 45 percent were below their target enrollment. Similarly, first-time LSAT takers were down 16.1 percent for October 2011 compared to the prior year.

To some, such data raise concerns that the legal profession may not be attracting the diverse and talented people needed for the future of the legal profession. The fundamental value of diversity within our profession is linked to the role that lawyers play in pursuing justice in a diverse society. Uncertainties about prospective jobs and the rising price of legal education imperil this extremely important role.

Fostering diversity in legal practice is one of the key commitments of the ABA. The third of the four association goals, adopted by the House of Delegates in 2008, is to eliminate bias and enhance diversity. Consistent with Goal III, the ABA seeks to enhance diversity by promoting full and equal participation in the association, our profession, and the justice system by all persons.

Diversity in legal practice is not possible unless law schools attract and prepare a diverse student body. One way to evaluate a law school’s commitments and priorities is to scrutinize the choices it makes in utilizing the school’s limited resources. Thus, a test of a law school’s commitment to diversity is how the school allocates its resources to diversity efforts such as scholarship support for underrepresented groups and academic support programs. Faced with stretched budgets, law schools confront difficult choices. All law school deans and faculties are pondering how to set budget priorities in light of the changing world of practice. Will the economics that drive the law school market change the commitment to diversity in law school and in the practice of law?

Law schools are crucial in assuring our society continues to have access to a diverse and committed group of lawyers. As the home of the accrediting body for U.S. law schools, the ABA has the opportunity to educate the public about the place of law schools in society and about society’s need for lawyers. And if legal education is in crisis, ABA members are important stakeholders who should play a prominent role in the process of finding a solution to the problem. All lawyers should be aware of the burdens and uncertainties that law students and young lawyers face, and join together to address these challenges.

Irma S. Russell

Irma S. Russell is dean and professor at the University of Montana School of Law.