Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ill-Considered Rush To Re-Design Legal Education?

Protect Experiential Learning in Law School -- Let the Market Solve the Problems

Two well-respected legal scholars, who also write frequently about how to teach law, offered an op-ed piece in The New York Times, entitled: Don't Skip on Legal Training.  Erwin Chermerinsky and Carrie Menkel-Meadow open the conversation by providing this context:
Legal education, like all education, can certainly be improved, but the widely made claims of a “crisis” are exaggerated and do not reflect the contributions legal education makes to achieving justice and well-being for many in the world. In January, an American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education declared that it had rushed to release its report because “the urgency of the problem and the serious threats to public confidence demanded rapid action.” This crisis mentality is not only unfounded, but is also creating pressure for reforms that would make legal education worse, not better.
The claims of imminent catastrophe always focus on three things: the problematic job market for law graduates, the increased cost of legal education, and the decrease in applications for law schools.
The authors then briefly discuss these three components of the current market for legal education.  I have tracked the information about all three topics in many of my blog postings, and these authors provide a credible synthesis of each topic.  

Next, they turn their attention to proposed reforms of legal education, by saying: "Our chief concern is that the claims about a crisis in legal education will be the impetus for reforms that will do more harm than good."

They focus their discussion on two proposals:  

  • Reducing the undergraduate education required to take the bar exam; and
  • Reducing law school to a two-year program.
They call the second proposal a "terrible idea."  They back up this opinion with several paragraphs of argument starting with this:
The profession needs law schools to produce lawyers who are better prepared to practice law, not less well trained. That would be impossible in two-thirds of the time. If law school were of just two years’ duration, the first things to be cut would be clinical education and interdisciplinary courses, which are the best innovations since we went to law school in the 1970s.
This proposal worries me, too.  Yes, we will still find ways to cram the doctrinal law into the brains of students in a two year program, but the experiential, skill-building components of the curriculum will fall away.   Moreover, proponents of the two-year curricular program apparently assume that new graduates will find practice mentors after law school.  Yet, we also hear that law firms want more practice-ready graduates. 

Here's my guess: If I asked any of our very busy second semester 3L students if they would want to sacrifice the learning they have experienced during their last year, most of them would say "no."

Most of my colleagues have 10 or more years of private practice experience, so we have been teaching practical skills in our courses long before it became a topic of conversation.   

While our students would want to avoid the expense of a third year of law school, I expect most of them have enjoyed the opportunity to put theory into practice.  In fact, as we have offered my summer and intercession courses, many students are taking additional courses, not required to graduate, because they find them useful to future career plans. 

I see the market responding to all three concerns that the reformers identify: jobs, cost of education, and decrease in applicants.  In a few more years (many say by 2016 or 2017) legal jobs and graduates will equalize.  As more potential applicants wait for that day, the current applicants to law school are benefiting from trimmed tuition costs or increased scholarship money.  I've blogged on these topics previously.   

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