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Law Field Needs Serious Re-engineering: ABA Report

Finding ways to address long-term structural problems in the practice of law is part of the goal of an ABA task force that recently published a draft report dealing with the subject.


Randall T. Shepard, former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and chairman of the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, said there is a disconnect between the supply and demand for lawyers, although the issue is more complex than law schools simply churning out too few lawyers.


In summary, there are lots of people who need good lawyers, but cannot afford them. There are also a large number of accredited lawyers floating around in the workforce- albeit there are fewer enrolling in law school over the last few years- and a limited number of jobs available for lawyers to fill. On top of that, the price of a legal education is increasingly costly, driving many lawyers away from lower-paying public service positions upon graduation, he said.


Shepard said the economic recession initially impacted the amount of jobs available for lawyers, but many of those jobs have returned to pre-recession levels. Further, “the number of people … seeking to be lawyers has plummeted in last 48 months.” And, the amount of legal work, particularly for low- and middle-income families, for example those in foreclosure proceedings, is still relatively sizable.


The issue at hand is how to best match the right legal services, for the right price, with the people who need them, while getting qualified lawyers employed and productive. The report is focused mainly on addressing underlying issues with the pricing of a legal education, the accreditation system and actual training of lawyers, with goal of solving fundamental issues that may be the root cause of other imbalances with respect to the legal field.


According to information from the ABA, neither the draft report nor the final report will equate to “the policy or positions of the ABA.” “While the Task Force is not finished with its work, this draft report represents our effort thus far to formulate solid proposals to ensure that legal education in the United States remains viable in light of substantial economic and structural changes,” Shepard says.


Finding ways to improve the culture of the field could help these other problems self-correct. The competitive pressures at law schools “have created a method of financing and pricing that is very dysfunctional from the point of view of producing graduates at a moderate expense,” Shepard says.


One of the key conclusions found in the draft report is the need to mitigate over-complexities in the way law schools are priced and paid for. Essentially, there is “extensive discounting” for students with the best LSAT/GPA scores, creating long-term inequalities. Law school pricing practices also heavily rely on loans.


“One result is that students whose credentials are the weakest incur large debt in order to sustain the school budget and enable higher-credentialed students to attend at little cost,” according to the report. “Many of these less credentialed students also have lower potential return on their investment in a legal education. These practices are in need of serious re-engineering.”


Also, the accreditation and licensing system imposes structural requirements that add costs to law a school education that might not be yielding a worthwhile return on the final product. In other words, there is “room for heterogeneity” in the accreditation standards and educational programs, according to information in the report.


“It might be possible to imagine a system in which law schools with very different missions might be accommodated, say, for example, a school where relatively little time was committed to faculty research and publishing and much more time spent on practice-ready training,” according to the report. “The balance between doctrinal instruction and focused preparation for the delivery of legal services needs to shift still further toward developing the competencies required by people who will deliver services to clients.”


Other suggestions include licensing people who do not hold a J.D. to deliver limited legal services and allowing bar admission people who have non-traditional educations. A final report is expected to be done in late November, after a six week comment period. The ABA House of Delegates will then be briefed in February on the findings.


Dan Sabbatino is an award winning journalist whose accolades include a New York Press Association award for a series of articles he wrote dealing with a small upstate town’s battle over the implications of letting a “big-box” retailer locate within its borders. He has worked as a reporter and editor since 2007 primarily covering state and local politics for a number of Capital Region publications, including The Legislative Gazette.

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