January 25, 2019

ABA legal education commission moving closer to final report

When it began about 18 months as a presidential initiative, the American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Education cast a broad scope, realizing over time that it would need to narrow its focus.

On Jan. 24 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas, the commission members provided an outline of their progress and their continuing agenda of exploring possible changes to methods of training and testing of future generations of law students. The two-hour session also highlighted the commission’s alliance with the ABA Center for Innovation.

As Blake Morant, commission member and dean of the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., explained, the commission is focusing on recommendations to align the education of law students with the licensure of the practice of law while looking at technological advances that would improve access to justice for all.

Law schools, Morant added, are not doing enough with technology, both in the delivery of legal services and in their academic offerings.

The commission was formed by then ABA President Hilarie Bass in August 2017 as a way for the ABA to take the lead in steering changes in how law school education aligns with the practice of law. ABA President Bob Carlson has continued the commission during his year, and a report with recommendations is expected this August.

At a meeting, both commission members and other legal education stakeholders weighed in on some of the issues facing the academy and the legal profession. There was a sense that change was afoot although it appeared to be an open question of how fast it will occur and what the result will look like.

There was, for instance, strong sentiment expressed for law schools to offer a degree other than today’s J.D. after one and two years of study. But, state licensing requirements would have to change dramatically for that approach to be plausible.

Two panelists, both who are not commission members, added a dose of reality in their remarks, suggesting that the challenge for the commission is quite high given how both law schools and the legal profession resist change

Ed Walters, chief executive and founder of Fastcase, a national online law library, put the challenge this way: "In legal services, we have a huge product-market fit problem. Lawyers charge for inputs (hours), but clients value outputs (the work).” He labeled this a “mismatch” that sours too many clients on the legal profession.

Kellye Testy, president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council and a former law dean, underscored the importance of the commission’s work and future recommendations to both law schools and the profession.

"We must recognize the deep structural problems in the governance structures of higher and legal education as well as in the profession slowing down our ability to make progress,” she said.

Daniel Rodriguez, ABA Center for Innovation Governing Council Chair and former dean emeritus and professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, echoed that theme. Referring to a comment by Morant that law schools are not doing enough to incorporate technology in both academics and delivery of legal services, Rodriguez quipped: “Can we say guilty as charged.”

The Midyear Meeting ends Monday, Jan. 28, at the conclusion of the House of Delegates.