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Task force collects ideas on legal education reform


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Duke University law professor Paul Carrington recalls overseeing a study on legal education reform in 1970 funded by the Ford Foundation.

The conclusion: The third year of legal education is a waste of time that raises the cost of legal services. Better to cut the third year, according to the study, and admit students who have completed only three years of college. That way, only five years of higher education would be needed to become a lawyer.

“I still think those are pretty good ideas,” Carrington said at a public hearing sponsored by the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. The task force heard from more than a dozen speakers during the ABA Midyear Meeting in Dallas in February.

The task force was created in August 2012 by the ABA Board of Governors to look at a variety of issues that relate to the general direction of legal education in the United States.

The task force is not looking directly at the accreditation process, which is the province of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Its aim is to issue a report by the fall and bring its recommendations to the ABA House of Delegates in February 2014.

Soon after his study was completed, Carrington told the task force, he had a chance encounter with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an adviser in the Nixon White House. Moynihan observed that the guaranteed student loan program was “a national disaster” that would drive tuition through the roof, causing higher education to get drunk on borrowed student money.

PRELIMINARY CONCLUSIONS, SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS

Today, high law student debt is a burden for new lawyers, even as they face a difficult job market and a lack of readiness for law practice, according to Illinois State Bar Association President John Thies. He told the task force the ISBA held public hearings around the state and came to some preliminary conclusions: New lawyers have too much debt to work in public interest positions, to make a living providing affordable legal services, or to work in rural areas or small law firms.

Just how much do new law grads need to earn? Jim Chen, a professor and former dean at the University of Louisville’s Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, has crunched the numbers. Law graduates need an annual salary equal to two-thirds of their law school debt to make law school viable, he said. The problem could be solved, he said, by eliminating the third year of school or by requiring law professors to take a one-third pay cut or give up job security. But change won’t happen without outside pressure, he said.

Chen suggested that state supreme courts, either alone or in concert with bar examiners, should reduce the number of subjects tested on the bar exam so that only two years of legal education would suffice. He also suggested following the lead of the medical profession by creating the legal equivalent of a nurse practitioner. Law schools could still offer a third year of education, he said, perhaps by offering clinical experience, subject matter specialties, or a BigLaw and academic track.

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