WASHINGTON -- As administrators and faculty members from the nation’s law schools gathered here today, there was a general sense among those assembled that legal education is facing challenges. But they found little agreement on what exactly those challenges are, let alone what will be necessary to solve them.
The majority of sessions Thursday were dedicated to subjects other than the turmoil that has swept through the law school world in the past year. But in a workshop dedicated to the future of the legal profession and legal education, much time was spent discussing the new reality for law school graduates and what, if anything, law schools can do -- even as it largely elided the more controversial aspects of the situation, such as charges that law schools have deceived their students by reporting misleading employment data.
“It’s an extraordinarily volatile, and in some ways depressing, demoralizing environment in which to work,” said James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement. “Our perspective has to be to remember the real value of what we do and what we produce, but also to take an opportunity to think.”
For the most part, the law school representatives and panelists focused on a few select issues in what has become known as the “crisis”: that law students are taking on increasing amounts of debt yet having more trouble finding jobs to pay it off, leading to a questioning of the value of American legal education in general and even raising the possibility of Congressional hearings and increased regulation.
Much of the conversation focused on how to better prepare students for the job market, whether through increased clinical study, partnering with law firms that want to hire graduates trained in a specific field or method, or other curricular changes that acknowledge that the traditional path through a big law firm is closed to more graduates than in the past. Other presenters focused on cutting the prices students pay so they would have to borrow less money over all. And some, including the president of the American Bar Association, delivered a full-throated defense of American legal education, which they said may not be perfect but is still valuable.
Most strikingly, some law professors, administrators and lawyers took a position more frequently put forward by faculty in the liberal arts: that even if students with law degrees do not practice law (and an increasing number of students are indeed taking jobs that do not require a J.D.), a legal education provides a strong foundation for work in a variety of fields through encouraging writing and critical thinking.
“It’s law graduates who don’t practice law who are often most complimentary about their legal education and the analytic skills they received,” said Judith Areen, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.
The most forceful argument for reform came from Richard Matasar, dean of the New York Law School, who has argued for years that law schools need to change. (Areen called him the “Ron Paul of legal education.”)
“If we do not choose to be the agents of our own change, there will be others who are incented to think about making those changes happen, and they will not be educators,” Matasar said. “And if they’re not going to be focused on the things we’re focused on, is that a good thing?”
He suggested several changes to make legal education less expensive, including allowing accelerated degrees or granting J.D.s to students who do not have a bachelor’s degree; partnering with industry; and assigning some faculty functions to technology -- such as drilling students on case law -- so that professors or adjuncts could focus on mentoring and guiding students. (Many of these, he added, go against current accreditation standards.)
At the other end of the spectrum was the president of the American Bar Association, William Robinson III, who defended American legal education as the finest in the world. “So many who never went to law school want to talk about law school as a trade school,” Robinson said. “It is not. It is a school of higher learning” -- a statement that drew spontaneous applause.
“I have never seen law school as being about job security,” he said, calling the criticism of recent months unfair. “What we were taught is education is about opportunity, not about job security.”