Among the 20 judges, lawyers and law faculty who oversee legal education in the United States, not one graduated from law school after 1990, when MC Hammer topped the music charts, “Cheers” was the country’s most popular television show, and J.D. tuition at private campuses averaged $11,728 a year. (It’s now more than $45,000.)
The current members of the American Bar Association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar—which determines the rules for how law schools operate and makes accreditation decisions—on average obtained their law degrees 38 years ago.
None of those decision makers has personally grappled with launching their legal careers under massive educational debt, according to a new report from Law School Transparency and the Iowa State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.
That report, titled A Way Forward: Transparency in 2018, calls for the ABA to immediately add two young lawyers to the legal education council and eventually designate two of the 15 at-large council positions for young lawyers. (The ABA’s Young Lawyers Division currently has a liaison to the council who does not have voting power and is not present during closed-door discussions. The council’s lone law student member serves for a one-year term and has a vote.)
“The deans and faculty on the Council know the cost of today’s tuition only in the sense that they can recite the price,” the report reads. “They do not understand the life impact of tuition prices of $40,000, $50,000, or even more than $60,00 per year have on decision making.”
But Maureen O’Rourke, chair of the ABA’s legal education council and dean at Boston University School of Law, said in an email that the council is unlikely to revisit the young lawyer proposal now because it considered the matter up several months ago. Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, said he had not seen the full report.
Giving young lawyers a voting voice on the council is one of the report’s five recommendations, along with boosting the amount of data the ABA releases pertaining to student borrowing, diversity, and graduation and bar pass rates. The report also calls for the council to make law school data easier for people to use and understand; require law schools to provide their ABA-data to every admitted student; and require each law school to voluntarily publish the graduate employment report they submit to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).
Together, those changes will help legal educators tackle two of the profession’s most pressing issues—the skyrocketing cost of a law degree and the lack of diversity within the lawyer ranks, said Law School Transparency Executive director Kyle McEntee.
“The takeaway is that the cost of legal education is too high, and we need to take steps to address that,” he said. “The first thing to address any problem is to understand the facts as they are. We want those facts.”
McEntee said he’s not surprised by the ABA’s pushback to the addition of two young lawyers to the legal education council given that the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division last fall brought forth a similar proposal that the council rejected, and because the council itself is currently in the process of restructuring.
Adding younger voices is essential to helping the council understand the plight of today’s law graduates, said Kyle Fry, a 2011 graduate of Drake University Law School who worked on the report in his capacity as co-chair of the Iowa Young Lawyers Division’s Innovation Task Force.
“I think it’s hard for people to comprehend the size of today’s debt, versus the size of debt in the 1980s and 1970s, where you could work over the summer and actually pay for your law school. You can’t do that anymore,” Fry said. “Young lawyers are going to have different ideas based on the environments we were brought up in as young professional, young attorneys, and students in the time we went to school.”
Kellye Testy, former dean of the University of Washington School of Law and current president of the Law School Admission Council, said she found much to like in the new report. The legal profession as a whole benefits when prospective law students are informed about the opportunities and challenges a law degree presents, she said. Moreover, the legal education council could use some younger voices.
“There should be a variety of generational perspectives in the mix in terms of where our profession is going and what’s important for it,” Testy said. “Things are changing really fast. I graduated from law school in 1991 and I’ve been in many rooms where I’m the young one. That’s not good.”
Mathew Kerbis, a 2014 graduate of DePaul University College of Law and the current non-voting Young Lawyers Division liaison to the council, presented the proposal to designate two of the council positions for people under 36 or those in practice for no more than five years. The council rejected that proposal when it met in November, but seemed receptive to the idea of reaching out to younger lawyers to get them to participate in the standard nominating processes for a council seat, Kerbis said. Having young lawyers participate and vote in closed-door sessions where accreditation matters are decided is important, he added.
“They will have been in law school more recently and can speak more closely to what’s going on—maybe not at the specific school being discussed—but it’s a missing perspective,” Kerbis said.
Beyond the addition of two young lawyers to the council, providing more data on law student borrowing, diversity, and bar pass rates will help legal educators better understand the larger trends, McEntee said.
For instance, it may seem like good news that the average amount of law graduate borrowing declined in recent years. Yet, net tuition rates haven’t dropped as much over that period, meaning that law students are collectively wealthier than in the past and didn’t have to take out as many loans, McEntee said.
“Over the next year, we could see substantial progress on every single one of these recommendations,” he said. “Increased data transparency might reveal some ugly truths about law schools and how they allocate their resources, so there might be resistance from schools, but anyone who is genuinely concerned about inequality in our profession and society should support these very simple disclosures.”