American Bar Association Report Backs Sweeping Legal Education Changes

A task force organized by the American Bar Association in response to falling law school applications and rising student debt has expressed its support for extensive changes to the process of legal education in the US, including abandoning the requirement that those admitted to the bar first complete four years of college and three years of law school. Although a draft of the report, which was released late last week, makes no reference to calls by President Barack Obama to replace the last year of law school classes with on the job experience, the authors were prepared to consider eliminating the requirement that all bar candidates spend at least 45,000 minutes in the classroom prior to graduation.

The report said that without changes, the legal profession in the US was under threat of collapse due to price increases, a growing student debt problem, falling application numbers and a worsening employment climate. The authors went on to note that with the legal landscape the way it is, many law school graduates were never going to get the kind of jobs they hoped to land when they made the choice to pursue law as a career.

The report is still a draft, to be distributed for comment, then considered at the bar association’s 2014 meeting. If adopted there, it will be influential but not binding on either law schools or state bar associations.

Randall T. Shepard, the former Indiana chief justice who was chairman of the task force, said that within the group, the most controversial sections were those dealing with how legal education is financed and with the accreditation standards.

The report criticizes the practice of most law schools to provide little aid to needy students, reserving most of their scholarships for those with the highest credentials in part to help raise the school’s rankings.

According to Tamar Lewin of The New York Times, Shepard characterized these discussions as “prickly,” saying that there were particular disagreements over whether those parts of the report presented an accurate picture of the situation. The only other aspect of the report that caused controversy was whether the standards of accreditation for law schools was outdated and needed to be similarly revised.

Mr. Shepard said that there had been little controversy over the use of  nonlawyer practitioners, in part  because the members were so impressed by Washington State’s experiment with limited-license legal technicians, trained and licensed to handle certain civil legal matters. That program’s success has led to an expansion to practitioners for domestic relations, an area in which many of those who come to court are now unrepresented.

The report, citing the wide variety of colleges in the United States, called for more differentiation and experimentation by law schools.  It  also recommended the  creation of national standards for admission to the bar.

09 27, 2013
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