September 7, 2011 6:19 PM
Fixing Law School
Posted by Aric Press
It's been another dreadful year for the public image of law schools. Applications are down, but tuition is up. The false reporting of employment statistics by schools—the same institutions charged with teaching ethics to our prospective lawyers—is so rampant that both U.S. News and the American Bar Association have intervened to find more reliable reporting.
Frustrated, unemployed, debt-laden recent graduates have taken to flaming the Net. The New York Times and our blogging colleague Steven J. Harper have called out prominent education reformers for one of the rankest of academic sins—hypocrisy—at their institutions. And the ABA House of Delegates has roused itself to "urge" the law schools that it accredits to "implement" programs to "develop practice-ready lawyers."
The ABA is on the right track, and I recommend the fine memo supporting the delegates' resolution for a summary of the current situation. But urging won't be enough.
A few things are about to happen. First, much of the academy will ignore these blandishments. Some will speak up defensively, arguing that law schools have never done a better job of preparing lawyers for practice. I think that's true, but it also redefines the concept of faint praise. Then, we're going to hear, again, that law schools aren't vocational schools. Neither are medical schools, yet the members of that learned profession graduate prepared to stanch bleeding. Law graduates? Not so much. Finally, for all the fury, nothing will change. Absent an intervention, who will act?
• Not the universities. Law schools are profit centers, paying overhead and subsidizing programs far from the world of the 1Ls.
• Not the professors. The faculty is more academically distinguished than ever, but for all their brilliance the professors are not well suited to—or terribly interested in—developing "practice-ready" lawyers. This has left waves of 24-year-olds to mortgage their futures in the name of supporting an increasingly rarefied faculty. And few professors bother to say thank you.
• Not the employers. For them, the admissions office performs the most important on-campus task by screening for smarts and, on occasion, sparkle. To hear them talk, hiring partners pay little attention to the course work; firms brag that they are postgraduate training centers for their new recruits.
• Not the students. If they want to be lawyers, they must buy into the system. Few have any bargaining power. They are nonrepeat customers who arrive hoping to become "practice-ready" and leave still hoping.
Only two players remain with the power and motivation to force some change upon the schools: the client community and the organized bar. It is notable to me that when a corporate chief legal officer is rushed to an emergency room with chest pains, his first words upon confronting a young doctor aren't "If you're a first-year resident, get away from my gurney!" He and the world assume that the medical professional in the ER has been prepared for this moment. Yet clients believe that they can't find similarly adroit help from first-year lawyers. Some shrug, others bar them from their matters.A coalition from corporate America making demands on law school deans might not be so easily ignored.
And then there's the organized bar. The ABA has the power to accredit, and with that comes the power to insist. As part of the accreditation process, the ABA could, for example, add to its minimum requirements a list of ten core competencies for every law school graduate to master in order to be deemed practice-ready. These would run the gamut from, say, drafting a complaint to negotiating a memorandum of understanding—much as every graduating doctor knows how to suture a wound or confront an X-ray. This would have to be done quickly and then enforced aggressively (and yes, I know that lawyers, like doctors, need more than basic skills for their ever-narrowing practices).
The ABA need not stop there. Perversely, I think, the current accreditation standards have led to the creation of mini Harvards and Yales throughout the land. What we need is the freedom to experiment. A system that ended the six-semester tyranny and approved different regimens for different goals—two-year programs for the practice-ready; three for the lovers of Langdell; four for those determined to practice tax law—would unshackle the markets for students and faculty. Of course, this will take more than urging. But what a glorious cause for the ABA to embrace.
Press, ALM's editor in chief, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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