More dialogue over law school cost and curriculum

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Tucked along the hallway in Biolchini Hall of the University of Notre Dame Law School is an office that reflects the new focus – and the new struggle – of legal education. It is the Office of Career Development with a sleek interior of sliding doors, computers and conference rooms, and it is designed to help students get jobs once they get their law degrees.

Retired Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard noted the necessity of making a concentrated effort to find employment at a time when the job market is tight and the loan debt is high. Addressing Notre Dame law students during the Clynes Chair Lecture in the McCartan Courtroom, he offered words of reassurance.

ndshepard-15col.jpg Notre Dame 2L Chris Stewart (left) and Associate Dean Mark McKenna (center) listen to retired Chief Justice Randall Shepard. (Photo courtesy Susan Good)

“I don’t doubt for a minute that there are valuable employment opportunities for most people who want to become a lawyer,” Shepard said. “If you find yourself getting across a series of hurdles that law school and the bar exam present, you will, more often than the critics say, have the chance to be a lawyer somewhere doing something.”

Shepard’s remarks on Sept. 25 were his first public comments since the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education

released its draft report five days earlier. He is the chair of the committee which has been reviewing the quality of education offered at U.S. law schools and is making recommendations for change.

Notre Dame Law School, which laid the cornerstone to Biolchini Hall in 1930, has spent the past several years thinking about how the curriculum and classroom work has to adjust to meet today’s demands; what skills and competencies students should acquire; and what values they should hold once they become attorneys.

According to Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development Mark McKenna, the conversations have been hard but beneficial and important to do. Along with reaffirming what the South Bend school does well, the review has highlighted the things that can be done better.

Notre Dame concluded the externship program was one area it needed to improve, McKenna said. Many professors incorporate hands-on activities into their classrooms, but placing students in a workplace where they can apply what they have learned in law school was not happening enough.

The law school has worked to strengthen the externship program by increasing the number opportunities along with providing time for students to think about how the coursework links to their work on the job.

“So you’re trying to take students who have learned a subject matter and then put them in a practice environment where they have to make use of that. Both reinforce what they learned in the classroom, but then it also helps them understand the context that you can’t necessarily get from the pages of a book,” McKenna said.

In the draft report, the task force asserts a key to fixing the current problems in legal education is changing the culture of law schools to become more innovative. The Shepard committee calls for fostering more experimentation by law schools and expanding the opportunities for experiential learning with the end goal of better preparing students for the practice of law.

Shepard told the Notre Dame faculty and students that the model of legal education that has been in place has served the country well. He disputed critics who claim law schools are forced through a meat grinder that makes them all the same. Law schools, he said, occupy all kinds of intellectual niches, geographical objectives and they choose a different mix of faculty and curriculum. They are not cookie cutter institutions.

However, he continued, they are highly regulated. And while the schools say these practices are a sound way to organize instruction and they would implement them regardless of whether the accreditation standards required them to or not, there should be room for innovation.

“Our proposal is in the draft report, that the accreditation system ought not only empower people who have a solid plan that varies from (convention) but to actually invite people to come in with more dramatic options,” Shepard said. “Oblige them to describe why this might be a better system, oblige them to describe how we will know whether it’s better or not … and then let everybody take a look at it and see whether maybe that could be more widely embraced.”

Cost and, in particular, the way law schools fund legal education is another main focus of the task force’s report. Shepard reiterated that under the current system of merit-based scholarships, the students with the best chance of getting a job are accorded a discounted tuition through scholarship but the students who are less qualified do not get as much financial assistance and have to borrow more to pay for their education.

Echoing Shepard’s observation, McKenna said it is nearly impossible for a law school to “unilaterally disarm the way” it funds itself. The problem has gotten worse, McKenna said, as states have cut funding to state-supported schools and thereby shrunk the best way of getting a legal education, especially for students who have a greater need for financial help.

“If (states adequately funded their schools), that would take a lot of the pressure off some of those schools to finance their school entirely through tuition,” McKenna said. “Then, if their price point came down a lot, it wouldn’t be as pressing to figure out how you allocated the tuition dollars. Now, I don’t want to pretend like tuition would come down enough that it would still not be a burden, but it would at least take some of the pressure off of doing that.”

To help Notre Dame students manage debt, in 2001 the law school started the Loan Repayment Assistance Program aimed at covering the education loans of law graduates who go into lower-paying public service or non-profit work.

The repayment program not only eases the financial burden, McKenna said, it widens the job market by giving students the option of working in government or charitable organizations. By putting more lawyers in legal services, this helps tackle the conundrum in the job market of law graduates going without jobs while many non-lawyers are going without legal assistance because they can’t afford it, he said.

McKenna advocated for law schools to get their students thinking more broadly in terms of job opportunities and beyond the prestige firms, but he conceded that can increase the financial burden on the school. The funding mechanism depends on tuition as well as philanthropy so, McKenna said, “you need some students making a lot of money when they get out in order to fuel the machine.”

Among the collection of faculty and students listening to Shepard’s lecture was Geoffrey Bennett, who brought a fresh perspective to the ongoing debate over American legal education. Bennett is an English barrister and the director of the law school’s London Law Programme.

In the United Kingdom, the solicitor and barrister law degrees are taught at the undergraduate level and include a year of apprenticeship. Also, students who have completed their college studies in a different discipline can add a one-year graduate course in law where they are taught the core subjects and are then able to sit for professional exams.

Once they graduate, students trained as solicitors mostly join law firms while barristers mostly open their own offices and, until recently, had to be self-employed.

Bennett was hesitant to detail what American law schools could learn from the UK legal education system, but he did point to law being a post-graduate subject in the U.S. rather than something taught at the undergraduate level. He speculated that adds enormous expense and students coming from college are not functioning at a higher cognitive level because they often do not have any knowledge of law that they can then build on in law school. They start their legal studies from scratch.

“So I think that strikes many of us in the UK as being a colossal extra expense to qualify as a lawyer,” Bennett said. “I think there’s a lot you can say about British lawyers, but I don’t think anyone is able to suggest that they are technically worse than their American counterparts, so it seems to work.”•


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.