Legal Education

ABA task force on law school financing calls for reforms

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An ABA task force is calling for enhanced debt counseling for law students; “plain English” disclosures of loan repayment programs; an increase in the collection and public dissemination of law school financial data; and greater experimentation by schools to find new ways of lowering costs while maintaining sound educational programs.

The Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education, in a report (PDF) released Friday, said its findings and conclusions “paint a sobering picture” of the challenges facing legal education and the legal profession today.

But by promoting transparency, accountability and innovation, it said, the task force seeks to lay a foundation for “thoughtful and responsible decision-making” about issues of critical importance to the future.

The 62-page report, more than a year in the making, documents the decline in law school enrollment; the rise in inflation-adjusted tuition; the widespread and increasing use of tuition discounting; the weak legal job market; and the growth of student borrowing and debt loads.

But the task force also notes that many of the financial challenges facing legal education largely affect higher education in general. And it cautions against one-size-fits-all solutions or reflexive actions in a dynamic and evolving environment.

The task force report also voiced frustration with what it said was the scarcity of systematic, reliable and detailed information it needed for the task at hand. In light of the group’s timetable and resources, it said, exploiting the best information available was the only practical course. “At best only a partial picture of the current state of affairs is possible,” it said, “but even this…is important and valuable.”

The 15-member task force, created last year by then-ABA president James Silkenat, was charged with looking at a broad range of issues. These included the cost of legal education for students; the financing of law schools; student loans and educational debt; and the use of tuition discounting, merit scholarships and need-based aid.

A set of resolutions based on the task force’s report will come before the House of Delegates for consideration at the ABA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago in August.

Among its recommendations are that the ABA encourage the governing council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which accredits U.S. law schools, to require law schools to provide debt counseling services that exceed those required by the U.S. Department of Education. Given the complexities of the federal student loan program, the task force is also recommending that law schools be required to produce “plain English” versions of the terms and conditions of those loans in a user-friendly format.

In light of its concern over the scarcity of relevant financial data, the task force is also recommending that the section collect and release more information from schools about expenditures, revenues, and the amount and percentage of financial aid they distribute based on need and merit.

It also urges the section to strongly encourage experimentation by law schools to reduce costs and improve value through its variance process, and for other groups to research and share information about the factors that influence students’ decisions to attend law school.

Two task force members issued separate statements to highlight individual concerns.

Luke Bierman, dean of Elon University School of Law, said he wrote merely to note that there are “fundamental issues that require significant attention” from the legal profession if its members are to be true to their calling as a self-governing profession with special public responsibilities.

“Our profession must honestly and creatively embrace the challenges attendant this transformative moment to identify and preserve values core to our role in society as the shepherds of the rule of law while concomitantly adapting to a new era,” he wrote.

Georgetown University Law Center professor Philip G. Schrag said he wrote only to point out what is new and particularly important in the report, to emphasize the point it makes about the limitations of currently available data and to put the issue of cost into the larger framework of the need for legal services.

On the latter point, Schrag said much of the discussion about the cost of legal education centers on whether it’s affordable to prospective students. But he said the purpose of law school is not simply to enable students to have satisfying careers, but to provide highly educated practitioners and policy-makers to serve the public.

“Not enough attention is being paid to whether the increasing cost of legal education will have adverse effects on public service,” he wrote.

Schrag suggests that law schools could provide a useful service by offering a one-year or 18-month Master of Legal Studies degree to help educate and credential limited legal service providers—similar to Washington state’s system of limited license legal technicians—at a fraction of the cost of a JD degree.

“Such programs would be both beneficial to the public and very consistent with the experimentation that this task force recommends,” he wrote.

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