Law schools must answer criticism, AALS executive director says

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Noting the number of college graduates applying to law schools has dropped 36 percent since the Great Recession, Judith Areen, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, pointed out the impact of few applicants eventually ripples beyond the classroom.

“… The biggest drop in the applicant pool has been in students who would have achieved higher-than-average LSAT scores,” she said. “They are students who would have had a very good chance of being hired even in a tight job market.”

Areen talked about the future of law schools Tuesday as the guest speaker for the annual James P. White Lecture on Legal Education at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. In her presentation, “Legal Education Reconsidered,” she reviewed the history of legal education in the United States and outlined a way forward for law schools to overcome the criticism and attract the brightest students to the legal profession.

In particular, she cautioned law school faculty and deans from becoming disheartened or rushing to change the curriculum.

She said the current attitude toward legal education did not arise from anything law schools did or did not do. Rather the “toxic combination” of fewer lawyer positions, reduced public financial support for law schools and severe criticism of legal education that has gone largely unanswered has soured many potential law students from pursuing a career in the law.

“The drop in the legal job market since 2010 was not caused by what was being taught or not taught in law school. It was caused by changes in the economy, changes in the practice of law” she said. “… If anything the fact that large law firms were able to maintain productivity with fewer lawyers suggests there is value to what law schools have been teaching.”

However, Areen also admonished law schools from becoming too smug.

“Law schools may not be a scam, as some of the blogs will argue recently, but, of course, they are not as good as they could be,” she said.

They must develop innovative curriculum – she pointed to McKinney’s high-tech Active Learning Space as an example – that will enable students to learn the increasing volume of law. Also, law schools need to keep costs down so low-income students and those who are the first in their families to go to college can afford to get a J.D. degree.   

Areen, a 1969 graduate of Yale Law School, worked in the private and public sectors before becoming a teacher. She served as dean of the Georgetown University Law Center from 1989 to 2004 and remains a professor at that law school. Her visit to IU McKinney was a bit of a homecoming. Although born in Chicago, she moved with her family to South Bend when she was 3 years old and eventually graduated from James Whitcomb Riley High School.

Much of the focus of legal education has been in the recent decline in the applicant pool, but Areen cited research from the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute that shows college freshmen have been losing interest in law school since well before the recession.

Missing from the research is the reason for the drop. Areen said the AALS is partnering with other organizations such as National Association for Law Placement and the American Bar Association Section on Legal Education to survey college students and recent graduates about what factors they considered when deciding whether to apply to graduate or professional school. The hope is that the survey, titled “Before the JD,” will give law schools some hard data on what is happening.   

While law schools look internally to reverse the decline, Areen said they must begin speaking out against the barrage of criticism that has been leveled at legal education. Although law schools have been criticized for much of their history, she traced the recent punishment to a series of New York Times articles that shined a harsh spotlight on legal education in 2010. Some of the attacks on how law schools previously reported graduates’ employment statistics were warranted, she said, but the condemnation of what is being taught was one-sided.

Areen advocated for law schools to continue their dual mission of teaching and research. Some of the criticism leveled in the media and in the legal profession has been at what is perceived as professors spending too little time in the classroom and too much time producing research that has little relevance. She traced the admiration across the world of American education to the teaching and scholarship that professors do.  

“Research in law schools make it possible to identify areas of law (and) legal education in need of reform, to study our legal institution and practices, and to propose better approaches,” she said.  
Today, faculty and deans should explain how their classrooms have changed. Instead of solely studying court opinions, law schools are giving students hands-on experiences through clinical work and offering courses in alternative dispute resolution and negotiation along with increasing the amount of pro bono work students and law professors provide.

Also, law schools need to more accurately describe the benefits of studying the law to prospective students.

“For too long, we described legal education as ‘teaching students to think like a lawyer.’ That is not a particularly attractive goal for a lot of undergraduates today,” Areen said. “I think we need to better communicate the breath of what students learn in law school. First that legal education can sharpen your analytic skills; second, it will sharpen your problem-solving ability; and third, it will improve your ability to communicate and advocate both in speaking and writing. That’s a set of goals much broader than ‘thinking like a lawyer.’”   

Finally, she called for legal education organizations such as AALS and the ABA as well as law schools to strength their partnerships to meet the current challenges.  

“… We need not fear what will happen if others reconsider legal education,” Areen said. “Together, I think, we will be able to regain the confidence of qualified college students and graduates that law school is a good choice, not for everyone, but for someone who wants to make a difference during their professional career, both in services to others and in addressing the most intractable problems that face our communities, our nation and the world.”




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  1. The voices of the prophets are more on blogs than subway walls these days, Dawn. Here is the voice of one calling out in the wilderness ... against a corrupted judiciary ... that remains corrupt a decade and a half later ... due to, so sadly, the acquiescence of good judges unwilling to shake the forest ... for fear that is not faith ..

  2. So I purchased a vehicle cash from the lot on West Washington in Feb 2017. Since then I found it the vehicle had been declared a total loss and had sat in a salvage yard due to fire. My title does not show any of that. I also have had to put thousands of dollars into repairs because it was not a solid vehicle like they stated. I need to find out how to contact the lawyers on this lawsuit.

  3. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  4. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  5. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.