Facing Up to Legal Education’s Daunting Challenges

Topics: Government, Law Firms, Legal Education, Thomson Reuters


Most practitioners have plenty to worry about, as they prepare their firms and organizations for an evolving legal services industry.

Do we also need to worry where the next generation of lawyers will come from? There is enough data in the headlines to make one wonder where the lawyers will come from and what they will do. Is this a much-overdue right-sizing that will correct itself? Or are more fundamental changes needed in the way we prepare lawyers for 21st century practice?

Students Staying Away

Top undergraduate students, in particular, seem to be avoiding law school. Law School Admissions Council data shows that universities that have traditionally been strong feeder schools for law school have seen a sharp drop in the numbers of applicants, although the drop might be leveling off.

The total number of applications to law school continues to fall. As of late March, there are 291,241 fall 2015 applications submitted by 43,197 applicants. The number of applicants are down 2.9% and total applications are down 5.6% from 2014.

Enrollments are down again. For the fourth straight year, enrollments are down. A total enrollment of 119,775 law students in 2014 is down 7% from 2013 and about 18.5% from the high of 147,525 students in 2010.

Graduates Challenged

Those that do graduate are not practice-ready (if you ask their new colleagues). In a BARBRI survey, more than 70% of 3Ls surveyed said they think they possess sufficient practice skills, and 76% think they are ready to practice “right now.” Only 56% of the lawyers they work with, however, think they are ready. Practical skills seems to be the biggest issue, with only 23% thinking they have the right skills.

Legal employment lags the rest of the economy. While some data indicates an improving legal employment outlook, the real measure is how well legal employment is performing against the rest of the economy—and there, the picture is not rosy. While other non-farm employment is rebounding sharply, employment in the legal services industry is relatively flat.

Law School Responses

More accurate employment data. The ABA is proposing new guidelines that will stop the practice of law schools reporting jobs that they fund themselves as full-time, long-term, bar-passage jobs. This is just one of the ways that law schools have been accused of cooking the employment stats in order to paint a rosier picture to graduates.

Some movement on new forms of legal education. In the wake of the legal education crisis, some changes are being made. Some schools are experimenting with programs that are shorter than the traditional three years. Others are expanding interdisciplinary options, including joint JD and Masters programs—JD/MBA is popular. Others are integrating business and technology education into their programs. And still others are introducing more practical clinical programs including medicine-style “rotations.”

Law schools are consolidating. Consolidation is another rational response. Hamline and William Mitchell merged in St. Paul, bringing the Twin Cities’ down to three schools from four.

The Industry Knows What Needs to be Done

The law school responses identified above are fairly tepid in relation to the growing challenges to young lawyers and would-be lawyers on a personal level, and to law schools as institutions.

The problem is not a matter of what to do, but mustering the will power to do it. And the industry has a pretty good road map, in the final report of the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, which came out more than a year ago. (See Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, with updates and link to the original report.)

This report is a pretty thorough and realistic assessment of the problems facing legal education in the U.S. today, which in turn are somewhat central to the challenges that the legal services industry faces. The report’s chief virtue is that it names names, going after some of the sacred cows of legal education and the legal services industry, while spreading the responsibility over everyone involved.

The main conclusions center on five key areas that need improvement:

  • Pricing and Funding: The Rent’s Too D*** High. The current system of pricing and scholarship awards is divorced from financial need, with the result that many of the students with the least potential earning power in the law will pay the highest price (and incur the highest debt levels).
  • Accreditation: Too Uniform. The current law school accreditation process creates programs that lack diversity of focus and emphasis. Accreditation could support a wider variety of degree-granting law schools, some focused on doctrine and research, some more focused on practice skills, etc.
  • Innovation: Too Hard to Experiment. A looser system of variances would allow more schools to experiment with new pedagogical approaches.
  • Skills and Competencies: Too Few Practice Skills. Skills training, experiential learning, and practice-related competencies are needed.
  • Broader Delivery of Legal Services: Too Few Alternatives. Law schools and the wider legal community would serve the public better by opening up other forms of training and licensing for types of legal service that do not require a JD.

There’s nothing in the above that hasn’t already been said about U.S. law schools. What’s new and a little refreshing is that specific players are called out and specific solutions are attached to stakeholders: The ABA, law school administrators, law faculty, the legal ethics regulatory framework, etc. In particular, the calls for new forms of licensing for legal professionals other than JDs is refreshing and will likely be controversial (as it already is). Similarly, the idea that the system can support a wider variety of paths to legal education also feels new and refreshing.

The full report is well worth a read for a good, multi-dimensional understanding of one of the more important issues facing the legal industry today. The direction this debate takes will determine the type of legal practitioners we will have in the future. We should all be hoping for a result that gives us a legal ed system that serves up more lawyers who are tech- and business-savvy.

But it’s been a year since the report, and no comprehensive reforms of legal education are in sight, just piecemeal adjustments.