Monday, February 11, 2013

"Drastic changes" in how we educate new lawyers?

That's the theme emphasized in this Times report on the ABA task force on legal education meeting in Dallas.  On the table are sensible ideas--making it possible to get a two-year law degree, and creating a legal analogue of "nurse practitioner"--but one hopes that the would-be regulators bear in mind that the most important thing they can do is de-regulate or relax regulations on many fronts, so as to permit more experimentation with models of legal education at differential prices.   Many of the current problems result from a "one size fits all" model of regulation of law schools, as well as a "one size fits all" assessment of law schools by U.S. News.  The ABA isn't well-equipped, and never has been, to police the particulars of legal pedagogy.  Employers "vote" with their employment decisions and on that basis, it is quite clear that the most selective employers still vote for the "Yale" or "Chicago" or "Stanford" model of legal education (whatever exactly those are, but they clearly combine commitment to research along with teaching, extensive clinical opportunities, and a total commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching).  Certainly those schools have been modifying their own curricula and faculty in response to changes in the legal profession and to feedback from lawyers and judges over the past decade, and that will continue with or without the ABA.  But rather than top-down edicts that apply across the board--which is what the ABA has always done--it would do well to move in the opposite direction, to see what different approaches might also work.

Of course, no changes in legal education can help the tens of thousands of graduates saddled with debt and a dismal job market over the last half-dozen years in particular, and it would be good not to lose sight of the fact that any "drastic" changes in ABA regulation of law schools still leaves unaddressed the debt crisis that afflicts students in all parts of higher education.   But the ABA is not without its own political muscle, and one thing it might also do is use some of that muscle to put debt relief, including bankruptcy reform, on the table at the national level.

ADDENDUM:  The article does include one dangerous innuendo, namely, that somehow the current difficulties in the job market and the current need for more differentiation in models of legal education can somehow be laid at the doorstep of "tenured" faculty.  In fact, the lack of differentiation in models of legal education can be laid at only one doorstep, that of the ABA, and the dismal economy might be blamed on a variety of parties, from the deregulation of banking that began in the Clinton era, to miscreants on Wall Street.   Tenure remains an important feature of all serious academic institutions, and it would be a travesty were the current "crisis" mentality to undermine it.  That being said, and as we have written before, tenure has never meant lifetime employment, and the ABA, in consultation with AAUP lawyers, might think about drafting post-tenure review standards for law schools, to deal with the sometimes egregious abuse of tenure at many law schools.

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