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Dear Recent Grad, It’s more complicated than that. Signed, The ABA

Heather Diersen//September 24, 2010

Dear Recent Grad, It’s more complicated than that. Signed, The ABA

Heather Diersen//September 24, 2010

By Heather Diersen

My article earlier this month: Dear Law School, It’s all your fault. Signed, Recent Grad, produced a flurry of comments, criticism, and inquiries about the legal education system and its failures. The overall sentiment from lawyers, new and seasoned, is that law schools are flooding the market with graduates, are misleading potential students with falsified employment statics, and the American Bar Association is sitting around with its accreditation wand, telling us to eat cake.

All persons seem to agree that the legal education system needs to catch up to the changing market, and to my surprise, I discovered the ABA is actually attempting to do something to tackle these concerns.

In an interview with Jay Conison, Dean of Valparaiso University School of Law, in Indiana and the current chair of the ABA Accreditation Committee, I learned the ABA knows of the concerns and is attempting to make some changes to its accreditation process and law school reporting requirements.

Dean Conison could not speak on behalf of the ABA or the Accreditation Committee, but could speak personally based on his nearly 10 years of experience as a committee member. Dean Conison pointed me to several resources of information that I was unaware. The ABA is attempting to create more transparency in the legal education, revise and improve its standards, and even has draft proposals to improve curriculum requirements to include more skill training to better prepare graduates for this unusual market.

The ABA Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar Section has several committees; three of which I will highlight: Accreditation, Standards Review, and Questionnaire.

The ABA Has Authority to Accredit Law Schools, Not Regulate Law Schools

The ABA is granted policy making authority from the U.S. Department of Education. This authority allows the ABA to set forth the standards for accreditation and grant accreditation when those standards are met. The ABA is a “gatekeeper” to the extent that the Accreditation Committee is charged with the administration of the ABA accreditation process to ensure every accredited law school provides a quality education. If a potential school meets the ABA’s standards, it is granted accreditation. It is not the function of the ABA to restrict the number of accredited law schools or limit the number of students a law school can admit. Further, the ABA cannot close law schools; it can only not renew an accreditation if a school fails to meet the standards.

The Standards May Be Changing…

A main complaint from the legal community is that the law schools are not keeping up with the changing market and are merely flooding the world with unskilled lawyers. Dean Conison believes the ABA is aware of the changes in our legal market and he noted that some schools are adapting to the changes and some are not. The Standards Review Committee is charged with reviewing proposed changes in or additions to Standards, Interpretations, Rules, Policies, Procedures and Criteria of legal education. The 2010 draft proposals include changes to school curriculum, governing standards, and admission and student services, among other things. One proposal to Chapter 3 Program of Legal Education is Standard 302, which will require schools to identify and define learning objectives for its graduating students and 303 which requires every student to complete, among other things: (i) a simulation course, (ii) a live client clinic, or (iii) a field placement. The theory behind this is that the students will be better equipped to practice law or seek non-legal careers upon graduation.

More Transparency in Law School Reporting Statistics

The ABA sends out an annual questionnaire to every accredited law school. The Council reviews these questionnaires to track a school’s compliance with accreditation standards. Every seven years these questionnaires and an additional, more lengthy report, are reviewed for a law school’s reaccreditation. The annual questionnaire requires data on dozens of areas, from student admittance to employment statistics. Some of the questionnaire information is released to the public and is one of the main tools used in the Official Guide To Law Schools and by organizations such as US New and World Reports in their law school rankings. The Questionnaire Committee is responsible for reviewing all law school informational questionnaires and recommends changes to the questionnaire.

Jay Conison
Jay Conison

When I asked Dean Conison about the allegations of misleading and fraudulent reporting of employment statistics, he believes the Questionnaire Committee is significantly concerned. During the next year, the committee is considering recommending changes in the law school reporting requirements, particularly in the type of information given with employment statistics. The Committee wants more transparency in law school reporting and wants a more accurate, consistent, and complete picture in the annual questionnaires so that consumers can fully understand the data behind the statistics. This seems to be what lawyers, students, and the public want most: don’t tell us you have a very high employment rating when a substantial number are not employed in legal-related work but are searching for such work.

There May Always Be Too Many Lawyers

The 2010 “bad” market for attorneys is not new; attorneys struggled in the 70s and early 90s. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, argues that the success or failure of an attorney often depends on whether an attorney started his or her career during a time of economic turmoil. Despite this, we are currently seeing law school classes grow.

Dean Conison noted that the legal education system is really designed to produce “generalists;” it prepares a person for a wide range of career and employment settings inside and outside the legal arena. Dean Conison observed that obtaining a J.D. is valuable and beneficial for a large range of career fields and what a prospective student must do is think carefully about the investment he or she is about to undertake. The ABA’s attempts to improve our law schools’ transparency and curriculum may not decrease the number of lawyers fighting to practice. What we can hope, is that those choosing to run in this rat race will do so with more knowledge.

Although I agree that a J.D. provides a transferable skill set for a variety of careers, I wonder if there are really many people that go to law school without intending to have a legal-related career. It seems more likely that people go into non-legal careers due to economics and opportunities. If it is more a matter of economics, would a different degree be a better fit for many current undergrads; and will the eager pool of undergrads realize this before they become 1Ls?

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