ABA Legal Education Task Force publishes draft report


The American Bar Association’s draft report and recommendations on the Future of Legal Education was published on Friday 20 September. The full text of the report can be accessed here.

In a number of obvious ways this is no LETR report. It is not explicitly research-based (though the ABA has held hearings and invited evidence), it takes up less than 40 pages, and has taken only a year to produce. Nonetheless there are some interesting simlarities.

The report opens with a familiar story. It recognises that the US system of legal education “faces considerable pressure” over costs, student debt, declining application levels and “possibly structural” changes in the number and kinds of jobs available for law graduates. It also prefaces its recommendations with a recognition that the core problems are structural, and not amenable to quick fixes. Rather like the LETR report it too acknowledges the challenge, given the contested terrain of legal education, of presenting recommendations that would have “a reasonable chance of influencing action”, and capable of creating a framework for “continuous adaptation and improvement”.

The main problems identified by the report can be summarised very simply: US law schools are too expensive, too alike and too remote from the needs of practice. The medicine prescribed by the Task Force includes:

  • systematic reform of law school pricing and financing
  • a greater focus on defining and delivering professional competencies, both at law school and subsequently
  • the development and delivery of new systems of training and licensing those with limited practice rights, rather than focusing so much on the production of “professional generalists”
  • Greater support and incentives for innovation and experimentation in the delivery of legal education, eg, by reducing regulatory barriers to experimentation
  • the need for all stakeholders to support “an enterprise or program for the continual assessment of conditions affecting legal education and of the strengths and weaknesses of the then-current structures in legal education, and for fostering continual improvement in the system of legal education”.

The greatest disappointment to many is likely to be that the Task Force has, perhaps not surprisingly, sidestepped the issues of cost and funding, arguing that the time allotted was insufficient to the task. It has thus recommended that a further task force or commission be appointed, with the expertise to pick up this task.

Beyond this, a number of similarities to the LETR approach are quite striking. The Task Force has also focused on general principles, rather than risk getting lost in regulatory detail, and has largely come out against greater prescription. It calls for some re-regulation and de-regulation where necessary or possible, but most of its proposals are non-mandatory and rely on the use of incentives, facilitation and coordination techniques. Beyond that there are three particular common themes I think it is useful to highlight:

  • First, there is the drive to define competencies. The Task Force has possibly gone (even) further than the LETR in saying to law schools, you can build your own curriculum inside the competencies required. But this is accompanied by a very clear indication that law schools need to do much more to re-align the balance in the JD between academic law and what the Task Force calls “focused preparation for the delivery of legal services”. In both England and Wales and the US the devil here will lie in the detail of the competences chosen.
  • Secondly, the Task Force report notes the wide range of initiatives being undertaken in response to the current challenges facing law schools, but also highlights the fragmented and uncoordinated nature of responses, and the absence of “a full understanding of the tools available to effect change, mechanisms for assessment of progress, and a strategy for long-term continuous improvement”. This is also all too familiar (though it may be arguable that the sense of crisis in the US has driven innovation to an extent that we have not (yet) experienced in the UK). What I think is critical here is to recognise that the Task Force and the LETR Report have both highlighted the importance of creating a formal coordination and evaluation mechanism – LETRs Legal Education Council and (virtual) Legal Ed Lab, and the Task Force’s  call to establish a “Center or other framework” to support, assess and evaluate improvements in the legal education system. My personal concern is that this proposal is in danger of being overlooked in the deliberations that have so far followed publication of the LETR Report. If such an outcome is achieved in the US, and not in England and Wales, then a very considerable opportunity will have been lost to UK legal education.
  • Thirdly the Task Force report also acknowledges the need to enhance access to justice for lower income consumers. It therefore proposes that non-lawyers be permitted to perform “limited legal services,” and that bar admission might also be opened up to individuals who have not completed an undergraduate degree and law school. This again has significant echoes of the liberalisation measures proposed by LETR, though it is not clear whether the US report countenances a return to a full apprenticeship model such as is being developed in England and Wales.

Responses to the Task Force’s draft are invited. The report should be finalised in November and presented to the ABA’s policy-setting body, the House of Delegates, early in 2014.

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