The news from the American Bar Association , Task Force on the future of Legal Education, regarding recommendation for basic changes in legal education, surprised many observers of the legal market and law schools. The committee is delivering its ground-breaking recommendations a year a head of their two year mandate. The committee along with many members of the the legal profession and the legal academy, believe that the time for incremental change is over and drastic and fundamental changes are needed now.
While the problems of overcapacity in the market for lawyers, had been increasing for years. It wasn't till the worldwide economic crisis forced a basic change in the economic sustainabilty of law firms that changes in the legal profession began to be taken seriously on a wide spread basis.
Of course, problems in the law firms did not leave law schools unaffected. With sizable layoffs of associates and even some partners, the potential job market for law school graduates, got even tighter. But it took a few years for the wave in the legal profession to hit the law schools in a significant way.
A few years ago, those of us who work in law schools were asked how these difficulties in the legal marketplace were affecting our law school programs. More and more stories were appearing about the growing number of unemployed or under-employed law grads who could not pay back their huge student loans. Surprisingly, it seems to have taken a few years before the impact became apparent in the law schools. This was both attributed to law student execeptionalism and "magical thinking " and also, to less than forthright marketing information from the law schools.
Beyond the lack of available positions, in the law firms, the semi-official training and mentoring process that use to actually develop practicing lawyers who could bill for their time, began to dry up. Under the new economic conditions, clients were no longer willing to be subsidizing these lawyers-in--training by the fees they were being charged.
This highlighted the fact that law schools had not been providing this kind of practice-oriented knowledge and experience, as part of the law school curriculum. However, in the new context, this could provide law schools with an important area for expansion of the curriculum to help fill this gap and also improve the job prospects of students.
In a fashion similar to the legal market, it seems that the long-looming problems with law schools, have not been responded to in an adequate fashion, until the recent sharp drop in law school applications. criticisms of the existitng system and recommendations for changes and many isolated innovative experiments, had been ongoing for years. But it has taken a serious economic threat to law school viability that has forced the legal education establishment to begin implementing basic changes.
The ABA seems to be both a surprising initiator in this process, and an indispensable actor in it. The new recommendations actually undo part of what the ABA has put in place through its formal accreditation authority. Loosening requirement on matters such as minimum credits, the use of non-full time faculty, law classes for non-law students, having fewer tenured faculty, indicates that the old structure that the ABA sanctioned, needs to altered to deal with an urgent situation and that they are the ones to begin the process. While the state judicial authorities and Bar examiners will have to be involved in accepting these changes. The iniatives from the ABA, begin the tangible process that other actors can react to and follow.So far the ABA sections recommendations include :
- Shortening law school to two years instead of three.
- Making greater use of non-tenured faculty to teach more practice courses.
- Possibly hiring fewer tenured faculty with a heavy focus on research.
- Including continuing education for faculty in pedagogy.
- Offering more non-traditional and innovative teaching methods.
- Having students take relevant non-law courses, such as business courses.
- Allowing students from other disciplines to take law courses relevant to their career plans.
- Fostering closer ties with practicing lawyers to provide instruction and mentoring.
- And in an area that really questions how legal services are provided - creating new legal practitioners with a limited legal license to provide a limited range of legal services.
These new recognized categories of legal workers, will actually change the meaning of what has been considered "the un-autharized practice of law" and "maintaining the legal monopoly" by others. Online businesses like as Legal Zoom, are already testing this type of market. Recognition of new types of legal workers, will legitimize these practices and help make basic legal services by properly trained personnel available to ordinary people at costs they can afford. An unexpected but welcome potential outcome arising from the present upheaval in the legal arena.