From the Managing Director: A Legal Education Report Card

Barry Currier
Managing Director

If you were asked to grade legal education as an enterprise, what would be the categories or roles for which grades should be assigned? What grades would you give legal education?

The higher education e-newspaper, Inside Higher Education, recently launched a blog, Leadership in Higher Education, authored by John Kroger, former President of Reed College. Kroger’s background is in the law and his experience includes time spent as a law professor. The first post is “A Higher Education Report Card.” Americans, he observes, devote considerable time and attention to college report cards and ranking systems, and spend much less time focusing on the performance of higher education as a whole. I am not sure that I agree with that assessment, but I can certainly attest to a disproportionate amount of time being spent on rankings and their disproportionate influence in legal education. 

The grading categories, as Kroger acknowledges, depend on what one believes the purposes of higher education in the U.S. are. He suggests three “core and unequivocal” roles: (1) conduct research that advances knowledge; (2) provide accessible, high quality undergraduate education to a large percentage of the population with good measured outcomes regarding learning, development, and employment outcomes; and (3) provide high quality graduate and professional degree programs that meet the specialized needs of our society. He proceeds to give U.S. higher education the grades of A-, A/F, and B, respectively.

If you had to create a report card for legal education, what roles do you think are “core and unequivocal”? Try to limit it to three or four, as Kroger did for higher education as a whole. What grade would you assign for how we are doing in each area?

Here’s a first take:

Legal education must provide accessible, high quality legal education confirmed by measurable outcomes related to learning, skill development, and employment outcomes that serves well the students, the profession, and the public. Grade: A/F

Taking cues from Kroger’s comments about undergraduate education, at its best, U.S. law schools offer an education of unsurpassed quality, and it is better than it has ever been. True, the education can be expensive, but for many the expense is justified by the careers that the education makes possible. At its worst, legal education carries a hefty price tag that leaves graduates with high debt and limited opportunities.

Notably, in his discussion of graduate and professional education, Kroger, a former law teacher, says:

“Graduate education in America seems adequate. Yes, we have issues. Legal education has not changed much in the last one hundred years, and one might question whether that lack of evolution makes sense or not….”

That is simply wrong and a trope that needs to be put to the side. Much has changed in legal education in the last one hundred years, and even in the last 50 or 25 years. The pace of change can be slow, however, and right now is not accelerating fast enough to respond to the challenges and opportunities in both the higher education and the legal profession spaces.

The quality of programs, outcomes, and opportunities for graduates are a mixed bag across legal education as a whole, thus the A/F grade.

Legal education must conduct research that advances knowledge and protects/promotes the rule of law in the U.S. and the world. Grade: A

The research that has been and continues to be done in U.S. law schools is at or among the best in the world by almost any measure. It makes major contributions to the evolution of both public and private law, leads the growing conversation about the increased use of technology in law and the practice of law, and is increasingly interdisciplinary and global in approach. Legal education has been and continues to be blessed by the participation of some of America’s most talented and wise individuals.  

Legal education must be a leader in assuring that the bar, and law-trained people in general, reflect the diversity of the society and the communities in which they work and serve. Grade: B-

It is often and correctly observed that the law is the least diverse of the professions. Further, it is often and correctly noted that for our legal system to function effectively, those who work in it, and those who have power in it, must reflect the diversity of our communities and nation.

While many law schools and individuals in those schools have done much to stand up for, nurture, and encourage the diversity that we must achieve in our institutions and in the profession, the problem remains acute.

What do you think are the core missions for American law schools? How do you think legal education is doing?