February 07, 2018

Legal education panel solicits input on teaching skills, testing and expanding access

The Commission on the Future of Legal Education, an initiative of American Bar President Hilarie Bass, held its first open forum Feb. 4 and heard a variety of views on how to reshape legal education in terms of teaching skills, licensing of future lawyers and expanding emphasis on access to justice.

In opening the hearing, Bass, who established the commission in August 2017 when she became president, observed that the panel is chiefly focusing on ideas of “realigning” what law schools are teaching, what bar exams are testing and what law firms are looking for.

The 10-member commission, chaired by Patricia White, dean of the University of Miami School of Law, is planning to make recommendations on specific changes for the methods of training and testing future generations of law students. Over the past few months, commission representatives have met with the Conference of Chief Justices, which consists of the top jurist in each state; the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which administers the bar exam; and others.

The hearing at the 2018 ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver represented the first call for comment from the various stakeholders in legal education. About a dozen responded in oral or written testimony to discuss the three focuses: future skills, access to justice and licensure.

With research indicating that 80 percent of the U.S. population that needs legal services are not receiving them, White observed that developing suggestions on how law schools can assist to “make legal services more accessible” to poor and middle-class Americans is a top priority of the commission. Several individuals testified that developing more clinical components to legal education – either in the third or an additional fourth year – should be considered.

“We need to create a culture looking forward that embraces, celebrates” public interest law on par with any legal job, said Lora Livingston, a Texas state judge and chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. She added that internships or externships in the third year of law school would “create and enlarge the supply of public interest” law assistance.

Commission member Blake Morant, dean of the George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C., highlighted the “forward-looking nature of this commission.” He emphasized another goal is to explore the changes rapidly occurring in the legal profession and recommend how legal education should adapt.

Tommy Preston, chair-elect of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, urged the commission to come up with ideas on how to improve interaction between law schools and the legal profession, including relaxing legal education standards to allow first-year law students to be taught by adjunct faculty. Preston, a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law, recalled the "first year was the most impressionable" of his three years in law school.

The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which serves as the national accreditor of law schools, has discussed changing its standards to allow more adjunct faculty. Its Standard 403 requires that more than half of the teaching in the law school be done by full-time faculty. One approach would eliminate that requirement for the last two years of law school but retain a more rigid requirement for tenured faculty in the first year.

Sammy Chang, a law student who is the ABA Law Student Division representative to the Council, also urged significant changes, particularly putting more emphasis on job training and less on concepts that many lawyers never use. “Law schools, much like the states, are laboratories,” he said. “Not laboratories of democracy. They are laboratories of justice.”

He also said that the bar exam, administered twice a year, “fails to test the competency of law students in terms of their ability to practice. … A good lawyer’s qualities cannot be measured on a multiple-choice exam,” he added.

To encourage greater access to justice, particularly in rural areas, representatives of the ABA Standing Committee of the Division for Legal Services pointed to the success of the Rural Law Opportunities Program, a partnership between the University of Nebraska College of Law and three state colleges or universities — Chadron State College, the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Wayne State College. The program covers tuition expenses for students who commit to practice in the state’s rural areas.

Those who would like to offer their views to the three questions presented can email comments by mid-February to the commission’s director at Andrea.Sinner@americanbar.org. Plans call for all oral and written testimony to be available on the commission's website.