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Law school financing system in need of ‘serious re-engineering,’ task force says

Posted Aug 1, 2013 3:20 PM CDT
By Mark Hansen

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The current system for financing a law school education, which drives up tuition costs and student debt, is "deeply flawed" and in need of a "serious re-engineering," an ABA task force says.

And the law school accreditation standards, which impose more standardization of legal education than may be necessary, should be amended to enable more diversity in law school curricula and make it easier for schools to innovate, the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education says.

Law schools also need to do more to heed the legal profession's calls for more skills training and experiential learning, the task force says.

And state supreme courts, bar associations and lawyer regulatory authorities should devise new ways of licensing limited providers of legal services and authorizing bar admission for "people whose preparation is not in the traditional three-year classroom mold."

Those are some of the highlights of the conclusions contained in what the task force calls a "working paper" (PDF) of its deliberations to date that was posted Thursday on its website in advance of next Saturday's public hearing during the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

The 34-page document carries a disclaimer at the top saying it is neither a final draft nor a reflection of official ABA policy. It says the working paper should be viewed instead as a "field manual for people of good faith who wish to improve legal education as a public and private good."

The working paper identifies nine themes that it says should serve as a common framework and a shared set of goals for the project, including the currently flawed system for financing a law-related education, the need for greater heterogeneity in the law school curriculum and a new emphasis on the value of a legal education. It also says there should be greater innovation in law school educational programs, changes in faculty culture and work roles, and a clear recognition that law schools exist to teach people how to provide legal services.

The task force recommends that the ABA undertake a fuller examination of law school financing and pricing issues than it has been able to do. It also recommends that the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar revise accreditation standards that increase the costs but not necessarily the quality of a legal education. And it says state supreme courts and lawyer regulatory authorities should look for ways to reduce the educational requirements for admission and authorize people without JDs to provide limited legal services.

Task force chair Randall T. Shepard, retired chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, said Thursday he expects that some of the task force's recommendations will be widely applauded while others are just as widely condemned. But he's not prepared to say at this point which recommendations he thinks will fall into which category.

Shepard said the task force, which was created at last year's annual meeting, still hopes to issue its final report and recommendations by Nov. 20, the filing deadline for items to be placed on the agenda of the House of Delegates for consideration at the ABA's Midyear Meeting next February in Chicago.

"That's our target," he said.

Kyle McEntee, co-founder of Law School Transparency, called the working paper "a significant piece of thought leadership."

"It's full of great recommendations," he said. "Overall, the task force has done a great job of illustrating the problem and explaining the philosophical tensions at play between the private good and the public good."

The big question now, he said, is whether stakeholders can execute the task force's vision of the future.

Barry Currier, the ABA's managing director of accreditation and legal education, declined to comment on the working paper, saying to do so now would be premature. "The council looks forward to considering the task force's report when it is finalized," he said.

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