By Tamar Lewin
Faced with rising student debt and declining applications to law schools, a task force of the American Bar Association is calling for sweeping changes in legal education, including training people without law degrees to provide limited legal services and opening the bar to those who have not completed four years of college and three years of law school.
The report, issued in September, does not refer specifically to President Obama’s suggestion last summer that law schools might limit classes to two years, and have students spend their third year clerking or practicing in a firm. But it did recommend the elimination of the rules that law students must have 45,000 minutes in a classroom to graduate and that they cannot get credit for field placements that are paid.
The report describes an urgent need for change in the nation’s legal education.
“The system faces considerable pressure because of the price many students pay, the large amounts of student debt, consecutive years of sharply falling applications, and dramatic changes, possibly structural, in the jobs available to law graduates,” it said. “These have resulted in real economic stresses on law school, damage to career and economic prospects of many recent graduates, and diminished public confidence in the system of legal education.”
It called the predicament of the many recent graduates who may never get the kind of jobs they anticipated “particularly compelling.”
The report is still a draft, to be distributed for comment, then considered at the bar association’s 2014 meeting. If adopted there, it will be influential but not binding on either law schools or state bar associations.
Randall T. Shepard, the former Indiana chief justice who was chairman of the task force, said that within the group, the most controversial sections were those dealing with how legal education is financed and with the accreditation standards.
The report criticizes the practice of most law schools to provide little aid to needy students, reserving most of their scholarships for those with the highest credentials in part to help raise the school’s rankings.
“There were very prickly long discussions about whether the language in the report accurately describes the situation,” Shepard said. “The other issue where there was real disagreement was on the list of items in the accreditation standards that we thought should be liberalized or eliminated.”
Among the items on the list are the standards on credit for work before law school matriculation, distance education, student-faculty ratios, the proportion of courses taught by full-time faculty, tenure, physical facilities and more.
The overall idea, said James. B. Kobak Jr., a New York lawyer on the task force, was to free law schools to be more innovative and get away from the one-size-fits-all model.
But Leo P. Martinez, a task force member who is president of the Association of American Law Schools, said that while he generally embraced the idea of encouraging heterogeneity among law schools, he thought the standards helped to ensure an “irreducible minimum of quality.”
Shepard said that there had been little controversy over the use of nonlawyer practitioners, in part because the members were so impressed by Washington state’s experiment with limited-license legal technicians, trained and licensed to handle certain civil legal matters. That program’s success has led to an expansion to practitioners for domestic relations, an area in which many of those who come to court are now unrepresented.
The report, citing the wide variety of colleges in the United States, called for more differentiation and experimentation by law schools. It also recommended the creation of national standards for admission to the bar.