ABA president James Silkenat
ABA president James Silkenat (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

The American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education has released its final report, concluding that law schools in the United States are too pricey and too much alike.

Those findings will surprise no one who has been following the task force’s work during the past 19 months, as the substance of the 41-page final report is nearly identical to a draft released in September.

One difference involves the recommendations’ rollout. The panel has shelved plans to submit resolutions to the ABA’s House of Delegates during its midyear meeting next month. Instead, chairman Randall Shepard, former chief justice of Indiana, will brief the delegates and task force members will pitch their recommendations to entities directly involved in legal education and bar admissions—law schools, state bar associations and state supreme courts.

“When you get right up to the moment of truth, the report wasn’t written in a format that the House of Delegates was accustomed to seeing,” Shepard said. “The Task Force decided that we could do more good engaging with the entities that have the power to carry out these recommendations.”

The ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar oversees law school accreditation, but is largely separate and independent from the rest of the ABA.

Former ABA President William Robinson III formed the 21-member task force in July 2012 to look into the challenges law schools face and consider how best to respond. The panel examined a broad array of topics, but zeroed in on rising law schools cost and the growth of merit-based financial aid over need-based scholarships. The system harms both students and society, the report concluded.

“For me, one of the most illuminating aspects of the task force experience has been to shed some light on pricing, scholarships and discounting,” Shepard said. “That’s changed a lot in the past 15 years, and most judges and practitioners don’t know that. Offering scholarships on merit rather than need has changed the face of law schools and affected who can go there.”

The matter was among the panel’s top priorities. In fact, ABA President James Silkenat told the ABA Journal that he plans to ask the Board of Governors to create another task force to examine it specifically.

Among the other key recommendations:

• The ABA’s accreditation standards create unnecessary homogeneity among schools and increase 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 as lawyers and continue the shift away from doctrinal instruction.

• State supreme courts and bar associations should look for ways to license legal service providers who lack J.D.s but can handle some legal services, which would help address unmet legal needs.

Task force member Leo Martinez, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, said that while there was broad consensus among task force members in many areas, legal educators did not always see eye-to-eye with practitioners and judges.

“Part of the difficulty is that many of the practitioners are thinking about the law schools of 20 or 30 years ago, and they don’t appreciate the changes that have occurred since then,” Martinez said.

Martinez personally disagrees with recommendations to loosen specific standards pertaining to faculty job protections and the 45,000-minute minimum of instruction to earn a law degree.

“It’s not an accident that we have the best legal education system in the world, and some of these standards are what helped get us there,” he said. “We should be examining whether or not the standards are achieving their purpose, not just looking at what we can eliminate.”

Silkenat said the ABA would encourage discussion and debate about the recommendations and would act when a consensus emerges.

“As the task force acknowledges, the U.S. legal education system is widely admired around the world, but we in the legal profession all must work to ensure that the system remains strong and viable to meet the evolving needs of our clients and society in a changing, globalized world,” he said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.