Saturday, February 14, 2015

American Bar Association Task Force Fails to Offer More than Marginal Reform of Law Schools, Legal Profession

The Indianapolis Business Journal last week published an excellent article last week regarding students turning away from law school and the challenges faced by those who do graduate and enter the legal profession.  This week former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard pens a response that IBJ editors headlined as "Legal profession racing to navigate through storm." 

Former Indiana Chief Justice
Randall T. Shepard
Justice Shepard is chair of the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, an American Bar Association created committee charged with the responsibility of assessing how the schools and the profession should move forward in light of the declining interest in legal education and the challenges faced by those who

Recently the Task Force issued a document entitled "Navigating Through a Storm."  In his letter, Chief Justice highlights some of those reforms contained in that report:
We’ve suggested actions that law schools, the accreditors, bar associations and courts could take to make law school and legal services more accessible and less expensive. Broadly speaking, we’ve suggested reordering financial aid, lighter regulation of law schools to foster ingenuity in curriculum, further movement toward practical education, and alternative legal education and licensing.

There are many people with their shoulder to the wheel on such reforms. Notre Dame’s courses for law students on informatics and Indiana University’s McKinney School’s one-year master’s program are excellent examples. The New York courts have changed their bar exam schedule to give law graduates a faster start into the job market, and the Washington Supreme Court has created a program for limited practice by people with shorter and inexpensive specialized education.
With all due respect to Justice Shepard,, all these ABA task form reforms do is suggest marginal changes around the edges of the legal profession. They are slight improvements at best. Off the top of my head, I can name four reforms that are much needed:

First, the ABA ought to insist that people considering law school be provided with honest statistics on what salaries and employment is within the legal profession. Instead law schools have been for years providing inflated numbers to induce people to go to law school, promoting ridiculous average first year associate salaries far from reality of $35,000 a year salaries with no benefits or new attorneys who are put on commission only...if they're lucky enough to get a job.  Unfortunately there is no meaningful audit of the employment numbers claimed by law schools.  They have been lying about those numbers for years, competing with other schools as to which school could lie the most. I remember when I attempted to look into the claims our local law school refused to provide even redacted survey responses to support their employment statistics. They did admit, however, that they "estimated" first year salaries for people not returning their surveys. I'm sure those estimates were very inflated.

Second, the ABA ought to be aggressively opposing the entry of new law schools to educate people for a profession that is grossly oversaturated. Example, the ABA and the Indiana State Bar Association has been missing in action when it comes to the establishment of Indiana Tech as this state's fifth law school. Many of the students at that school will be incurring a lifetime of debt for education in a field where there are few jobs. A recent study found that Indiana is the 7th worst state in the country for legal jobs, with 3 attorneys for every 1 open legal job.

Third, the ABA ought to work with states on the enforcement of restrictions on non-lawyers practicing law. There are thousands of legal compliance jobs in the securities, mortgage and banking industries. These people offer advice about the law, develop written policies on legal compliance, and even attend hearings with people who are charged with violations of the law. These industries almost uniformly do not hire attorneys for these positions even though the people in those positions are clearly practicing law. While I'm not generally for barriers to entry, we in the legal profession were promised that only those who graduated from law school and passed the bar would be allowed to practice law. Yet we have plenty of non-lawyers practicing law in the aforementioned fields.

Finally, if the ABA is truly worried about student loan debt, the organization ought to be working to make student loan debt treated in bankruptcy just like any other unsecured debt. The fact is many of these law school graduates have taken on six figure debt because they were duped by false promises of entering a high paying profession. It would even the playing field if they were more easily allowed to discharge that debt in bankruptcy.

Those are meaningful reforms that truly would help the profession.  Unfortunately the ABA, like the Indiana Bar Association, has never been about anything more than protecting the status quo and the elite of the legal profession.


Anonymous said...

Paul, I don't have access to the number of students currently enrolled in accredited Indiana Schools of Law, but I'm taking a stab in the dark by wagering there are no quotas on the individual schools admissions per year. If I'm incorrect, let me know. I do have current figures on the number of students currently enrolled at the IU School of Dentistry, the only school of dentistry in the State. There are exactly 125 new students accepted into the 4-year program, so figuring each student completes the program and passes the Boards, then each year there are 125 new dentists ready to practice dentistry, either in private practice or public health. Frankly, I don't know a single new licensed dentist who's without a position in dentistry. Evidently law schools are accepting far too many students, as you noted, and are not selective or competitive in their admission process.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Anon 6:47, I think the number graduating from Indiana law schools had at one time been about 800 or so. That's been dropping though. IU-Indy apparently graduated 257 in 2014. That's the biggest law school in the state, slightly ahead of Bloomington. ND and Valpo have much smaller classes. Now you have to add in Indiana Tech.

You bring up an excellent point about the dental school. Unfortunately law schools are more about making money and they convince people to go to law school promising them that, even if they don't become practicing lawyers, they can use their law degree in other areas. But what they don't tell you is that law degree will also disqualify them from many jobs as employers will seem them as overqualified.

Yes, they are accepting far too many people into law schools. They could shut them down for five years and we'd still have too many attorneys.

LamLawIndy said...

I agree that data on job placement should be more readily available, and -- without question -- educational debt should be dischargeable in bankruptcy like any other debt.

I disagree with Paul's ideas regarding the unauthorized practice of law, however. I oppose barriers to entry, but that's not my top concern. My worry is that if unauthorized practice laws are more strictly enforced, the powers that be will use them to clamp down on disfavored speech. For example, can imagine a situation where a blogger is prosecuted for unauthorized practice for CORRECTLY posting that one need not allow government agents into one's home if the same do not posses a warrant.