February 02, 2018

Midyear 2018: American Bar Foundation panel tackles ‘perfect storm’ of legal education challenges

Rising tuition rates and a less-than-robust job market for new lawyers puts law schools in a real bind when it comes to attracting students. As the economic recovery continues in the wake of the Great Recession of 2009, law schools face a perfect storm of sharply declining enrollments and revenues – declines not seen since the onset of World War II – as students face higher tuition and substantial debt in the face of dreary job prospects. It is an internet-age storm powered by a level of intensity and breadth unlike anything the legal profession has faced in the past.

A panel of experts will explore this set of challenges and discuss potential solutions in a program at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver, “The Perennial (and Stubborn) Challenge of Cost, Affordability and Access in Legal Education: Has it Finally Hit the Fan?" The panel discussion – to be held at 2-4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Vancouver Convention Center, West Level 2, Room 217 – includes a wide range of stakeholders with varied backgrounds:

  • Moderator Rachel Van Cleave, former dean and professor of law at Golden Gate University School of Law

  • Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education, American Bar Association

  • Stephen Daniels, senior research professor, American Bar Foundation

  • Christopher J. Ryan, doctoral fellow, American Bar Foundation

  • Judith Welch Wegner, Burton Craig Professor of Law Emerita and dean emerita, University of North Carolina School of Law

Van Cleave says each panelist brings a different perspective to the discussion, which requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. “Law schools aren’t standing still,” she says. “There are many creative ideas being explored that panelists will discuss.” She served as dean of Golden Gate University School of Law from 2012-17, right about the time that many of these intertwined issues came to a head.  As a former dean and current law professor, she has a unique perspective.

“It has been difficult terrain to navigate,” Van Cleave says, listing changes in curriculum, bar passage, creating a sustainable financial model and setting tuition as major challenges. She adds that an important role for deans has been to build – or rebuild – relationships to ensure collaboration.  She has observed law schools becoming much more student-centered and willing to provide individualized support, such as coaching and mentoring in and outside of the classroom.  As dean, she met individually with each first-year student, a tradition her successor has continued, she says.

Panelist and ABF researcher Stephen Daniels will lead off the discussion by providing data and historical context on the financing of legal education and the role of the federal government, as well as employment trends and law school curriculum. He also will discuss how access to legal services has been impacted and how many innovators are reshaping how legal services are delivered.

“First, we need to outline the problem and try to understand why we had the sharp decline in law school enrollment in 2010,” Daniels says. “Part of problem is that law schools haven’t seen this steep of a decline since World War II. Sharp declines mean sharp reductions in operating budgets.”

Some factors are beyond the control of law schools, such as the state of the legal job market, he says. “We don’t know how bad, comparatively speaking, it may get. Hopefully people will come away with a better appreciation for the challenges facing law schools.”

Daniels served as a consultant and reporter on the ABA Presidential Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education (chaired by former ABA president Dennis Archer), and the task force report was approved by the House of Delegates at the ABA Annual Meeting in 2015. Since then, he has continued his research and has since obtained a grant from AccessLex Institute to fund the effort.

Following Daniels, Ryan will discuss the 21st-century status of legal education and the student perspective, focusing on the shift in how students make decisions about attending law school, as well as how law schools are approaching declining applications and enrollments. Currier is expected to provide the perspective of the ABA Council on Legal Education and how it examines outcomes, as well as updates on LSAT takers and the status of loan forgiveness. He will also speak about the strength of legal education programs and how law schools have changed in the last decade. Wegner will provide the big picture of possible solutions, including non-JD masters programs, JD-preferred employment, academic support, bar exam preparation and reform of the exam.

The panel is co-sponsored by the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Education, ABA Law Student Division, ABA Section of Science & Technology Law, ABA Young Lawyers Division and the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.