Does Our Legal Education Need Reform? The ABA Thinks So

The American legal profession, the American Bar Association (ABA), the nation’s law schools, the states’ Supreme Courts, etc., have collaborated for generations to develop a legal education system that until recently was admired all over the world. From the oldest law school in the world (a toss of between Harvard and Litchfield and William & Mary Law School) to the modern legal education system which is based on the 19th century belief that law is a science is in need of a serious makeover.

The current legal education system is grounded in the J.D. (Juris Doctor) program of the American Bar Association approved law school. Today the system is dealing with a considerable amount of pressure because of the price most students now have to pay to get through school including ever growing amounts of student debt, the striking changes in the jobs that are available for law graduates, and the years of dramatically falling applications (applications to law school are down 11% in the last year. All these factors have resulted in serious economic stresses on the country’s law schools, damages to the economic prospects and career options for recent graduates, and a decline in public confidence when it comes to the legal education system.

The American Bar Association’s recently completed a review of legal education which found that the system is in need of a substantial overhaul. A couple of the many problems is that law schools are disbursing financial aid in a way that helps out the schools more than students and some of their requirements limit innovation in the curriculum and close off models that may be more affordable. The faculty role in legal education needs rethinking at many institutions as well and it is felt that tenure systems shouldn’t be required for accreditation. Several of the recommendations would signify significant change either for the schools or their accreditor.

The ABA’s report came out at a time of widespread criticism of today’s law schools leading to President Obama’s request to cut a year off of law school and other, somewhat controversial changes that hope to address falling enrollments because, as mentioned above, applications to law school are down 11% in the last year. Most would-be lawyers inquire as to how long is law school; a daunting task by any stretch of the imagination because of the costs. Getting a Juris Doctor degree takes 3 years on a full time student program however some law schools offer part time programs which take 4 years.

One questionable practice is that some law schools claim minimal tuition rates, and then pursue certain high LSAT-GPA students by giving them substantial discounts (aka scholarships) without considering financial need. Students that don’t meet the grade receive minimal if any benefit from discounting and end up borrowing money to finance their education. The end result is that the students whose qualifications are the weakest will end up with significant debt to maintain the school budget while making it easy for sought after students to attend.

It is hoped that the ABA’s reviews will create an understanding of the urgency of coordinated efforts toward change, the significant benefits for all students, and the future of a robust legal education system.

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