Law schools in the United States are too homogenous and need greater leeway to experiment with their programs.
That’s one key finding from a draft report issued Friday by the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. Former ABA president William Robinson III formed the 21-member task force last year to examine the problems confronting law school and consider how best to respond.
The draft report makes few substantive changes to a working paper released in August, but will form the basis of the final report, which is expected to be complete by November 20.
"I don’t think there are any dramatic changes, but this is the first time the task force is saying, ‘This is what we envision our report will look like, save for any input from public comments,’ " said task force member David Yellen, dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
The task force once again wants the public to weigh in on its work and offer suggestions on how to improve legal education. The draft identifies five key conclusions:
• Law school pricing is complex, and the common practice of offering scholarships to applicants with high undergraduate grades and Law School Admission Test scores, while denying aid to lower-performing applicants with fewer lucrative career prospects, is a problem.
• The ABA’s accreditation standards create unnecessary homogeneity among schools and increases costs, and some standards should be repealed or "dramatically liberalized."
• The ABA should make it easier and more transparent for schools to receive waivers from the accreditation standards to foster experimentation.
• Schools should do more to provide students with the practical skills they will need in practice and shift further away from doctrinal instruction.
• State supreme courts and bar associations should look for ways to license legal service providers who lack a J.D. but can handle some legal services, which would help address all the unmet legal needs.
This last recommendation may take people by surprise, Yellen said. "It’s sort of a brand new development in the legal scene that will be pretty controversial," he said, noting that Washington state was the first to experiment with such a system. Washington has opened the door to what it calls "limited license legal technicians" who must complete some law courses but do not need a J.D.
The report concedes that there is no easy way to fix problems with the price of law school and its culture. Tuition costs are influenced not only by the cost structure of individual schools, but also by loan financing and the larger market for legal education. Those factors are both complex and interconnected, the task force found.
Similarly, the slow-to-change culture of law schools has emerged as another impediment.
"It is a culture of customs and practices that developed when decision-making involved consideration of modest changes that could be implemented over relatively long time frames," the draft report reads. "Today’s challenges require a much stronger culture of innovation."
The public still has a chance to weigh in, according to task force chairman Randall Shepard, a former chief justice of Indiana.
"We look forward to receiving additional public comment to supplement the hearings and comments process that we have conducted over the last year," he said. "Our goal is to produce a final report that will be as comprehensive and effective as possible while taking into account all the views that came to our attention."
Even if the ABA’s House of Delegates formally adopts the report early next year, it might not mean much. The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has authority over accreditation, and is independent of the rest of the ABA due to U.S. Department of Education rules.
However, council leaders said during a recent meeting that they would take the task force’s findings into consideration.