Legal Education

ABA commission points out legal ed and licensure issues that built access-to-justice barriers

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The costs of legal education and licensure should not act as a barrier for the quality and availability of legal services, and legal education should not be one size fits all, according to commentary released Wednesday by the ABA's Commission on the Future of Legal Education.

The 13-page commentary contained a set of principles, as well as recommendations aimed at aligning legal education and licensure more closely to better address the public’s legal needs.

“Law schools should be able to follow distinct missions serving their students and communities, while reflecting the variation of roles needed for the widespread provision of legal services. Our service delivery models and our system of licensure should also reflect this variation of roles,” the commentary states.

The commission also pinpoints eight “systemic obstacles” it says prevent needed changes for legal education and licensure. They include the profession holding on to expensive delivery models, a fear of technology and an outdated bar exam.

Additionally, the commentary questioned the ABA law school accreditation standards, as well as law school rankings, such as U.S. News & World Report’s annual list, which was released Tuesday.

“We regulate law schools in ways that are myopic, outdated and excessively one-size-fits-all. Ordinally ranking the multitude of law schools exacerbates those characteristics. All of this affects how schools prioritize their resources. It diverts their focus from anticipating the effects of technology, globalization and mobility; experimenting with new educational models; and adapting to changing professional requirements. It also encourages incrementalism,” the commentary states.

Barry Currier, managing director of ABA Accreditation and Legal Education, sent a statement about the commentary to the ABA Journal.

“The commission’s commentary identifies many of the important issues for legal education and the legal profession. Without having to agree with all of the characterizations of the current state of affairs, I can appreciate the hard work and thought that that went into preparation of the principles and supporting material. Their work represents another voice to consider as we all work to improve legal education and the bar examination/licensing process,” he wrote.

The commission is chaired by Patricia D. White, a law professor at the University of Miami. It was created by former ABA President Hilarie Bass in 2017.

“Our aim was to articulate fundamental principles which could form the basis for urgently needed systemic re-examination and reform of how we in the United States approach the education and licensure of legal professionals in the 21st century. Perhaps most challenging of all, we wanted to do this in a document short enough to be widely read. We need everyone—not just academics and regulators—involved in the movement for change,” White said in a news release.

Other suggestions by the commission include:

    • Leveraging technology in a way that it can drive change at a quickening pace. That includes the consideration of whether legal professionals are needed for tasks traditionally done by lawyers.
    • Attorneys taking on a more problem-solving focus with their work, including across disciplines.
    • Improving and supporting the well-being of lawyers and law students.
    • Developing fair, valid and reliable measures to access progression and competence in legal education.

Kellye Testy, president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council, applauded the commission’s work.

“This report captures in one place many of the exciting initiatives for justice-focused change underway in law and legal education. Whether everyone agrees with everything in this report is beside the point. My hope is that this report will help spur more conversation and more action on how we can all work together to advance equal justice and build a world in which all may thrive,” she wrote in a statement to the ABA Journal.

Kyle McEntee, a lawyer and executive director of the reform group Law School Transparency, told the ABA Journal that the commission has taken a progressive view regarding what needs to change in and around legal education.

“The key will be concrete plans tailored to the mounting problems, especially as it relates to the structural issues that stand in the way of change,” he says.

Kellie Early, chief strategy officer of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, told the ABA Journal the NCBE looks forward to reading the commission’s work.

“We certainly agree that the legal profession is undergoing fundamental changes; that’s why NCBE’s testing task force is completing a comprehensive study, currently in its third and final stage, to ensure that the bar exam continues to test the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for competent entry-level practice in a changing profession,” she wrote.

The NCBE testing task force released a report earlier this month on the skills and abilities needed by newly licensed lawyers. It found the most important knowledge areas for new lawyers are the rules of professional responsibility, civil procedure, contract law, evidence rules and legal research methodology.

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