August 2012Volume 100Number 8Page 396

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The Bar’s Role in Legal Education Reform

It is essential that those on the front lines of delivering legal service and administering justice have a voice in the education-reform discussion.

Much has been written about the recent challenges faced by new lawyers and the law schools that gave them their diplomas. It is distressing to read that, in a recent study, little more than half of the 2011 law graduates had full-time, long-term legal jobs; that the average law school debt now exceeds $100,000 (and these debt levels clearly do not match well with typical salaries); and that the law schools continue in their (unhealthy) race to maximize their respective U.S. News & World Report ranking, sometimes with terrible (and predictable) consequences.

Lately, it seems as though a week does not go by without a new story on this subject from the legal or mainstream media, including the piece contributed by Professors Andrew P. Morriss and William D. Henderson in this month's Illinois Bar Journal. Along with many ISBA members, the public is clearly watching.

It now appears inevitable that changes in the way we train lawyers are on the horizon - and that is a good thing. Among others, these changes will likely target lowering the cost of a legal education, ensuring that we continue to have bright students interested in obtaining their JDs, and getting the law schools to produce more "practice ready" lawyers, as they were urged to do by the American Bar Association House of Delegates last summer.

There is an important role for the bar associations to play in the process of determining what reforms are appropriate. Those with the best understanding of the delivery of legal service, new lawyer employment opportunities, and our court system - practicing lawyers and judges - must participate in these discussions, providing their unique perspectives. Simply put, legal education reform should not be left just to the legal educators (directly or indirectly).

To date, precious little attention has been given to what will happen to our profession's ability to meet legal needs if the right kind of legal education reforms are not enacted. As a result, I have appointed a special committee chaired by second district appellate Justice Ann B. Jorgensen and Granite City attorney Dennis J. Orsey - and in the coming months, this committee will hold hearings around the state inviting solo and small firm lawyers, judges, legal aid lawyers, law students, experts in legal ethics and others (including academics) to provide input about what reforms would be most helpful and also, about the consequences of inaction.

Bar associations and others from around the country have already engaged in fruitful discussions as to changes that should be considered - some of which are already in some degree of implementation. Ideas have included greater transparency (and accuracy) from law schools as to costs and placement, substantial revision to the accreditation process (e.g., permitting the greater involvement of adjunct faculty), reducing the portion of legal education confined to the classroom, increasing the number of law school writing assignments (and giving law students much more frequent feedback), increasing practical skills training in a practice environment, creating more realistic borrowing guidelines for students (such that debt amounts are much more commensurate with appropriate salary expectations), overhauling tenure requirements (which some say are designed more for sociology professors than for trainers of lawyers), and, reducing the ability of universities to treat law schools as "cash cows" (on the backs of law students and their families).

Like it or not, the whole model of legal education is now on the table. As The New York Times editorialized last year, "the task is to teach useful legal ideas and skills in more effective ways....Law is now regarded as a means rather than an end, a tool for solving problems. In reforming themselves, law schools have the chance to help reinvigorate the legal profession and rebuild public confidence in what lawyers can provide."

Because this is a national issue, I am pleased to hear that ABA leadership, including its incoming president, Illinois' own Laurel G. Bellows, will be coordinating the discussions on reform through a new legal education task force with a national perspective. It is my hope that the work we do in Illinois on this subject will benefit this task force's deliberations.

The stakes of these discussions are high. In the words of Kyle McEntee, an attorney and executive director of Law School Transparency, a non-profit legal education policy organization, "[t]he way we train lawyers is not working for students, it's not working for the profession, and it's not working for clients." It is not even working for the law schools, which - it has been reported - are facing their second straight year of double-digit application declines.

Thus, this is the right time for a meaningful national discussion as to legal education reform. Bar associations, including our own, need to be right in the middle of it.

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