Thoughts from the ABA Deans’ Meeting

At the end of last week, I attended the ABA Deans’ meeting. 127 of the 202 ABA accredited law schools were represented. The conference was entitled “Our Future: Changes and Challenges,” and that is what the programming and the conversations focused on. In other words, although there was a clear recognition of the changed circumstances in which law schools of today find ourselves, there was a commitment to talking constructively and positively about ensuring that we remain committed to our students’ future success. This was a day and a half conference, so all of the contents can’t possibly be conveyed here.  Here, though, are some of the conference highlights.

The first panel focused on forms and delivery of legal education and the delivery of legal services. In this context, we discussed varying opportunities for students, both before and after graduation, to be placed in settings that would allow them to contribute to the delivery of much-needed legal services while gaining needed experience. The panel also focused on the cost of legal education, and touched on initiatives such as 3+3 programs and expanded joint degree programs to shorten the time to degree and thus reduce student costs. There was almost no mention of shortening law school to two years. Rather, the discussion focused on ensuring that the third year was meaningful, important, and of clear added value.

The second panel, on regulation and accreditation, clearly generated the most excited discussion. Discussion centered around who should license lawyers, what kind of activity should be licensed, who accredits what sorts of programs, and the role of law schools and law school Deans in these discussions. There were representatives from the state licensing agencies of both New York and California, both of which are expanding the requirements to be admitted as a practicing lawyer. New York has a pro bono requirement, and California is contemplating an enhanced skills requirement. I think it is fair to say that collectively Deans responded to these initiatives with disapproval. Historically, a graduate of an ABA-accredited law school was eligible to sit for a state bar exam. Although I cannot speak for everyone, I think it is fair to say that the view of the Deans was that if states begin to impose extra requirements, the burden will inevitably be felt by law schools, who will need both to ensure that our students have the requisite opportunities, and who will be asked to certify compliance by our students. At least one state’s bar officials have been heard to say, “We are not going to be outdone by California and New York.” A race to 50 unique bar admission requirements would be a disaster for law schools to administer.  Additional administrative requirements impose increased administrative costs; this is especially unwelcome in an era where everyone is seeking to keep the cost of legal affordable.

The afternoon panel focused on the changing face of legal education. In particular, discussion focused on the many new programs that are being introduced, including education for undergraduates, new masters programs, and new programs for nonlawyers. This session also focused on distance-learning, hybrid learning, and whether the JD should be modified to require more skills-based content. We also discussed LLLTs: limited license legal technicians, and the likely or most desirable place for them in the future legal landscape.

Saturday’s morning session focused on the varying legal education organizations, and their role in the future of legal education. These include the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), and, of course the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. I think the highlight of the discussion was the commitment of all of these organizations to work far more collaboratively then has been done in the past, particularly with an eye towards addressing costs of education as well as ensuring that the pipeline promotes a diverse student – and ultimately lawyer – population.

The final session ended where we began – thinking about our future and what we as Deans might do together. There was a clear sense that we have not been as united in reminding people about the value of a legal education as we might be. That will change. There was a sense that we have operated in the past as silo institutions, and that there are exciting opportunities for collaborations between and among schools. Many of you know that I am particularly proud of my decision to open up our Innocence Project to students from other Philadelphia area law schools. The words “joint,” “shared,” “collaborative,” “consultative,” and even “consortium” were talked about enthusiastically. And although almost everyone was experiencing yet another decline in law school applications this year, we left with a decided sense of camaraderie and optimism.

To close, let me put this in Temple perspective. Don’t get me wrong; I took away several new ideas. On the whole, however, I was very pleased to recognize that we are already doing a lot of the things that people felt are important to our shared future. We have comparatively low tuition; we have a host of experiential programs, both for our students and our recent graduates; we have crosstown collaborations with our area law schools, we have dual degree programs, and we are exploring forms of online teaching. I could go on, but my point is not to list everything we do but simply to conclude with the recognition that this is not the law school of the 20th century, or even of the early years of the 21st century. We have continued to evolve and offer new and innovative opportunities for our students. It felt good to have this confirmed.

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