The National Law Journal is hosting a discussion of the state of law schools, with contributions from the current Chair of the ABA Section on Legal Education, John F. O’Brien, the President of AALS, Michael Olivas, Dean Erwin Chemerinski (UC-Irvine), Bill Henderson (Indiana), Lucille Jewel (John Marshall – Atlanta), and Brian Tamanaha (Washington University in St. Louis). Here is my initial post:
We founded Law School Transparency in 2009 with a pretty basic goal: to spotlight and reform the presentation of law school employment information. In no trivial sense, law schools and the ABA Section of Legal Education were not fulfilling their responsibilities. Law schools were failing to adequately inform their future students. The Section of Legal Education was failing to adequately protect consumers with its accreditation standards, which law schools were more than happy to hide behind as accepted practice.
To a large extent, although strides have been made within the Section of Legal Education to protect consumers, these failings persist. (In a later post, I will explain how.) They signal, along with the fact that there were such significant failures prior to the national attention, much greater problems with law school operations. Law schools are simply not consumer oriented.
With this in mind, we are ready to announce the next phase of Law School Transparency: attempting to reimagine legal education. This has three core parts.
- Structural Transparency
- Identifying Opportunities for Improvement
- Unbreaking the Broken Model
Three common-sense goals color an undeniably difficult process. First, the cost of obtaining a legal education must be substantially reduced. Second, students must have the opportunity to make choices after graduation and must have economic mobility throughout their careers. Third, the education model must meet the needs of students, the legal profession, and clients.
This part focuses on understanding the cost structure of providing legal education in the United States. Reducing the cost of obtaining a law degree requires understanding the nuances of the law school model, where the money comes from, and where the money goes. Some of these facts may come from examining public documents like law schools’ Form 990s and recent reports on legal education, but additional transparency is needed. Law schools need to open their books, explain those books, and do so truthfully and in good faith.
Identifying Opportunities for Improvement
Once the facts are on the table, those who are interested in reducing the cost of legal education can identify opportunities for improving the law school model. This introduces a normative inquiry into what it means to provide value.
Like the Section of Legal Education Outcome Measures Committee, we believe that the focus must center on outcomes. Law school should add value in two related ways.
First, law schools should produce graduates who can do things they couldn’t do prior to law school. Learning outcomes must be scrutinized with due consideration to how well graduates serve employers and clients. It is one thing to teach something well, and another to teach something relevant. The report is a great start, though it will be important to generate the discussion among all stakeholders—something the committee admitted it had trouble sparking.
Second, law schools should produce graduates who successfully enter the workforce able to repay law school loans. Based on the report, this was not considered. The committee acknowledges that costs will likely rise after retooling the accreditation standards, but it does not demonstrate any concern for whether education is affordable. I am hopeful that participants in this forum will discuss how this crucial element could possibly have gone unaddressed.
Unbreaking the Broken Model
It’s important to synthesize old and new information about how law schools educate their students. Ultimately, the product of these efforts will help determine the most appropriate, substantive changes to the U.S. legal education model. There is very real pressure to do a better job for students and employers, both of whom can be viewed as consumers of legal education. In making these changes, it will be essential that access and quality are not sacrificed.
How best to achieve the goals outlined above will be a matter of important debate. But regardless of how we manage to eventually unbreak the law school model, it’s clear that change must come. Legal education reform requires a significant commitment by all stakeholders—not just those who currently spend time teaching—to consider why and how we need to reimagine legal education.