What’s causing bar passage rates to plummet across the country? Are law schools teaching the skills students need to practice in the 21st century? How can young lawyers help close the nation’s justice gap?
The American Bar Association’s newly convened Commission on the Future of Legal Education will grapple with those questions and more over the coming months, according Hilarie Bass, who has made the group a key focus of her year-long tenure as ABA President.
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Bass, who is also co-president of Greenberg Traurig, on Wednesday unveiled the 10-member commission, which includes participants from all corners of the legal profession. The group is led by chair Patricia White, dean of the University of Miami School of Law, and includes Judge Andrew Hurwitz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Spotify general counsel Horacio Gutierrez, Equal Justice Works executive director David Stern and Deborah Jones Merritt, a professor at Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law who has written extensively on the problems recent law graduates face.
Bass said the commission will provide the ABA with a voice on legal education’s big-picture issues beyond just accreditation—the ABA’s traditional law school role.
We caught up with Bass on Wednesday to discuss the purpose of the commission, mounting bar exam criticism, and what the ABA can do to address legal education’s woes. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Why is legal education a priority for you?
As president of the American Bar Association, [I think] the focus needs to be: What are the critical issues affecting lawyers? Whether or not I had an interest in legal education before, in the run up to this position, you can’t help but be concerned about the fact that every week there’s another article in a major media publication about issues of legal education—bar passage rates, debt, inadequate employment opportunities.
What’s the goal of the commission?
The goal is to focus on the current system of legal education and the current system of testing, and ensure that everything we’re doing is designed to create the most competent lawyers, who will be practicing 30, 40, 50 years from now. If we’re training lawyers the same way we trained them, 60, 70 years ago, that’s not going to be helpful in the new world of what practicing law is going to be about.
I gather the bar exam will be a big part of the commission’s work.
Clearly there is this phenomenon going on that’s of great concern to many states. Everybody is trying to figure out the same thing, which is, “Why are the bar pass rates going down?” The explanation previously supplied, which is that we’re digging deeper and taking lower LSAT scores into law school, could be a contributing factor, but it can’t be the whole explanation. We see at the top schools, whose LSAT numbers have not gone down, that their bar passage seems to be slipping.
I don’t think there’s a singular explanation, but I also don’t believe it makes sense for all for 50 state bars to each be doing their own study and coming up with their own set of recommendations. My hope is that this commission will be able to convince the [National Conference of Bar Examiners] to turn over test data to us, so an independent group can do an analysis and so we can draw some conclusions on a national basis. Since we’ve announced it, I’ve had calls from law school deans saying, “Please help us. We want to give the best education possible to our law students. We want 100 percent of them to pass the bar. We don’t know what the problem is.”
What other issues will the commission look at?
There are three buckets of what they will look at, the bar being No. 1. No. 2 is the skill set. Are we teaching everything within law school that we need to be teaching to prepare that law student who will be practicing in 2050? The third set goes to how we can assist our law grads to better address the justice gap.
What is the commission’s timeline?
I have told the commission it’s totally up to them. I’m not asking them to come up with a written report by the last day of my presidency. They’ve got to do their work and take the time they need. That being said, they know they don’t have an unlimited runway either.
What are you hearing from the legal educators you’ve been talking with? What do they want from the ABA?
I hear lots of different things. On the one hand, I hear the conversation with the law school dean who says, “Please focus on this bar pass rate. It’s a critical problem. We don’t know how to solve it. There’s nothing more important to us.” I also hear some pushback from the academics saying, “Not another task force. Not another group of outsiders telling us what we should be doing. Don’t you think we’re looking at these issues?”
What do you think the so-called “crisis is legal education” means for the broader legal profession? Just yesterday we had another law school shut down.
I don’t think there is a crisis in law schools, but I also think if we want to continue be attractive as a profession to the best and brightest of undergrads, it’s not helpful to have these constant negative articles about it. Are there too many law schools, and is it a terrible thing if some of them disappear? I would suspect there would be lot of support for both those statements. That being said, the worst of all worlds is to have students who signed up thinking they are going to get a legal education find out in the middle, after they’re taken on debt, that their law school is going to disappear.
What’s your pitch to undergraduates for why they should consider a legal career?
My pitch is being a lawyer is a phenomenal profession. You get to spend your time solving people’s problems. And I’m not just talking about monetary problems. You’re changing people lives, whether through pro bono or direct representation of your clients.
Contact Karen Sloan at email@example.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ