Law Schools

ABA task force report proposes scrutiny of law school funding, pricing and accreditation standards

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An ABA task force is recommending wholesale changes in the financing of legal education, the elimination of some law school accreditation standards, and it is pushing for more innovation and practical skills training in law school educational programs.

The task force is also calling on courts, state bar associations and bar admitting authorities to come up with new or improved frameworks for the licensing of limited legal service providers.

Those are some of the key proposals to be found in the draft report and recommendations (PDF) of the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, which was posted early Friday on the task force’s website. At first glance, those proposals appear largely unchanged from the ones contained in the task force’s working paper (PDF), which was posted on its website in early August.

However, task force member Nancy Hardin Rogers, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University, wrote separately to seek public comment on a different approach to some of the law school pricing and funding problems identified by her colleagues.

Rogers noted a recent proposal by the Obama administration (and cited this New York Times article that covered it) that would base federal financial aid to students on such factors as a school’s tuition, graduation rates, debt loads, earnings potential and the percentage of lower-income students who attend.

She said the president’s proposal would pressure educational institutions to keep tuition in line with their graduates’ likely salaries while preserving quality and access for those from low-income households by “directly addressing the mismatch between tuition and salaries, preserving access, and applying to all educational institutions,” including undergraduate schools.

“In my view, the ABA should further study the president’s proposal and offer guidance as [to] whether it is or should be adapted to be a useful approach to law schools,” she wrote.

The task force recommends, among other things, that the ABA undertake a fuller examination of law school funding and pricing issues than the task force has been able to do. It also suggests 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 calls on state supreme courts, state bar associations and lawyer regulatory agencies to look for ways to reduce the educational requirements for admission and authorize people without JDs to provide limited legal services.

“The task force believes that if the participants in legal education continue to act in good faith on the recommendations presented here, with an appreciation of the urgency of coordinated change, significant benefits for students, society and the system of legal education can be brought about quickly, and a foundation can be established for continuous adaptation and improvement,” the draft report says.

Task force chair Randall T. Shepard, retired chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, said in a press release that the draft report represents the task force’s effort “thus far to formulate solid proposals to ensure that legal education in the United States remains viable in light of substantial economic and structural changes.

“Our goal is to produce a final report that will be as comprehensive and effective as possible while taking into account all the views that came to our attention,” he said.

Shepard told the ABA Journal the draft report contains a variety of changes from the working paper, the chief one being that the working paper was an “orphan,” while the draft report represents the views of the entire task force.

“You’ll find places where they’re different, but they’re not much different in terms of the big picture,” he said.

Shepard also said that Rogers’ separate statement came too late in the drafting process to be incorporated easily into the draft report, so the task force simply decided to publish it separately as “food for future thought.”

“It’s the sort of idea that could very well end up in the final report,” he said.

ABA President James R. Silkenat thanked the task force for its effort to date.

“Thanks to the task force’s work, the legal community will be able to have a full, engaged discussion with all stakeholders concerning the future of legal education,” he said. “This is a topic that is critical to our profession and essential to the delivery of legal services in the United States.”

The task force will use the public comments it receives on the draft report to help prepare its final report and recommendations, which it plans to issue by Nov. 20, the filing deadline for consideration by the House of Delegates at the ABA’s Midyear Meeting in February in Chicago.

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