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Friday, March 29, 2013

Illinois State Bar Association Recommends Changes to Legal Education

Recently, the Illinois State Bar Association commissioned a study and released a report (available here) recommending changes to legal education. An ISBA synopsis of the report is available here. As outlined in the ISBA synopsis, the recommended changes include the following, some of which will be of interest to the advocacy teaching community:

The Special Committee made a series of recommendations to mitigate the law school debt crisis and transform legal education to focus on educating lawyers at an affordable price.
      • Congress and the Department of Education should place reasonable limits on the amount that law students can borrow from the federal government.
      • Rather than allowing all accredited law schools to enroll students receiving federal student loans, Congress should restrict federal loan eligibility to schools whose graduates meet certain employment and debt-repayment outcomes.
      • The federal government should ensure that funds available in these programs are targeted to students most in need.
      • Law schools must have the ability to experiment with new models of legal education to find the best ways to control costs while still delivering a quality education.
      • Law schools themselves must transform their curricula to more emphasis on practice-oriented courses, with greater focus during the second and third years of school on helping students transition to practice through apprenticeships, practical courses and teaching assistantships, rather than the more traditional doctrinal courses. Needed reforms also include changes to law school faculty.
The final recommendation is particularly relevant to advocacy teaching, because advocacy courses already are designed to accomplish this objective. And yet, as some of you know and personally experience, not all law school faculties are receptive to practice-oriented courses or the people who teach them. This has been a periodic topic of discussion at EATS, as I imagine it will be for years to come.

I think the ISBA report is significant because it represents an organized effort by the practicing bar to help shape the nature and future of legal education. I've read the entire report, and although I do not agree with all of it, I cannot dismiss any of it. The report recognizes that a professional education cannot be entirely academic in nature, and it outlines the challenges faced by the graduates and the practicing bar when law students don't obtain the training and skills they need while in law school. At one time, the generally recognized purpose of law school was to teach students to "think like a lawyer," with the expectation that additional skills training could take place after graduation. As we know, law firms and government agencies no longer have the resources or inclination to provide such training.

To underscore the significance of what the ISBA is telling us, our law school hosted our annual Beatty Jurist in Residence this past week. This year's jurist in residence came from Florida's 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami. At a faculty lunch, several of my colleagues asked her about her perception of the readiness of recent law graduates to practice, as compared to when she graduated from law school. Without naming schools, she said there is a clear difference in practice readiness in the graduates of different law schools that appear before her. Some of them know what they're doing: they know how to analyze a case, prepare for court, conduct a trial, and so forth. Some of them, unfortunately, do not. Her message to us, and to our students, was that preparation while still in law school is more important than ever before. She spoke to my criminal law class and advised them to seek out clinics, externships and internships to learn how to be a lawyer, and she cited her own clinical experience in law school as being absolutely critical to her career development.

I found it interesting to consider that the differences from school to school are so apparent, but this matches my own experience when I taught trial advocacy recent to law school graduates at the Army JAG School. There really were differences--and sometimes, very stark ones--from school to school. And truth be told, some of the graduates of the so-called lower-tier schools were much better prepared to actually practice law than their counterparts from more prestigious schools.

Take the time to read the ISBA report (available here), or at least the synposis (available here) , and please feel free to comment about it in the comment section of this blog posting.

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