Times are troubled for legal education. That’s the tenor of the conversation among legal education leaders from across the nation who have gathered in Miami this week.
At the Summit on the Future of Legal Education and Entry to the Profession, the first panel discussion on Thursday quickly turned to issues of declining law school enrollment, soaring student debt, a stagnant entry-level job market and the justice gap.
“We’re in a perilous moment,” warned James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement during the first panel of the two-day summit, co-sponsored by Florida International University College of Law and the Law School Admission Council. “There is a push-pull between admission offices and the job market.”
With the law school applicant pool finally growing after an eight-year decline, law schools will be tempted to increase enrollment in the fall, risking the recent modest improvements in the entry-level lawyer job market, Leipold said. He pointed to the fact that the actual number of new lawyer positions has continued to contract. Law school graduate employment numbers have improved only because schools have pumped out fewer new lawyers since 2013, he said.
“[Increasing law school enrollment] would be the wrong thing to do,” Leipold said.
The summit drew leaders from each of the major organizations in the law school sphere, including the NALP; the American Bar Association; the Association of American Law Schools; and the National Conference of Bar Examiners, as well as deans and faculty members from a variety of schools.
Participants disagreed early on about how well law schools have changed to address the mounting pressures bearing down on legal education and the challenges students and graduates face.
Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of Accreditation and Admission to the Bar, said that despite years of crisis, law schools have yet to undergo deep structural changes.
“We haven’t really had any major reforms. We should have done it yesterday,” Currier said. “We’ve tinkered around the edges of the fundamental challenges of the business model.”
But law schools have changed with the times, countered Wendy Perdue, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law and president of the AALS. “Law schools are doing a lot that they weren’t doing in 1968,” Perdue said, while acknowledging that many of those changes have increased both the quality and cost of a law degree.
A thousand miles away from the Miami summit, the ABA was holding a public hearing in Washington on a proposal to do away with its requirement that schools use the Law School Admission Test in selecting students, which would clear the way for all schools to also accept the GRE. That debate bubbled up early on at the summit, when moderator Dan Rodriguez, dean at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and a vocal supporter of the GRE in law admissions, asked LSAC board member and incoming University of Iowa Law Dean Kevin Washburn to justify the council’s opposition to the GRE.
“I don’t think there is an aggressive action by the Law School Admission Council to ensure there is only one exam,” Washburn said, calling the LSAT the “gold standard,” for law school standardized testing. “But we do believe an exam is necessary.”
Chris Chapman, the president of the nonprofit AccessLex institute, said that law schools must plan for a future in which lawmakers rein in federal student loans, tamping down the spigot of loan funds into the academy.
“It’s not a question of if, but when that subsidy will end,” Chapman said.
Should lawmakers cut back the availability of federally backed loans for graduate students, law students will be driven into the private loan market, he said. That, in turn, would mean wealthy students have more access to law school than those of fewer financial means.