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Shepard to lead legal education task force

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In announcing the formation of a special commission to examine legal education, the American Bar Association acknowledged both the growing controversy surrounding law schools and the need to consider a new approach in the classroom.

The mission of the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education will be to review and make recommendations on the state of legal education and its responsiveness to the legal market. Former ABA President William T. Robinson III provided an outline of the reasons for taking a closer look at how students are prepared for careers as lawyers.

Randall Shepard Shepard

“The growing public attention to the cost of a law school education, the uncertain job prospects for law school graduates and the delivery of legal services in a changing market warrant substantial examination and analysis by the ABA and the legal profession,” he stated in a press release.

Two Hoosiers will have key roles on the task force. Retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard has been tapped to chair the group, and Jay Conison, dean of Valparaiso University Law School, will serve as the task force reporter. Other members are academics, practicing attorneys and judges from across the United States.

“I think what we might be able to do is identify the best trends and answer the question if any barriers exist to innovation,” Shepard said.

Change necessary

While the economic recession has fueled much of the concerns over legal education, Conison noted that law schools were thinking about how to prepare students more effectively for the practice of law well before 2008. Schools were already shifting to such teaching methods as more skills training, more clinical experience, a more problem-oriented approach and group learning.

Shepard agreed, saying law schools are better preparing students both in the understanding of doctrine as well as in giving more practical experience than they did a generation ago. Indeed, the opportunity for hands-on experience has expanded enormously in the last 50 years.

“I think, in general, the stronger the clinical experience is, the more likely it is that a lawyer will get up to speed faster when she is out in daily practice,” Shepard said. “It shortens the learning curve.”

The ABA’s “A Survey of Law School Curricula: 2002-2010,” released in 2012, echoed Conison and Shepard, finding that law schools have been responding to the tight job market and economic downturn. In addition, a “wholesale curricular review” has induced experimentation and brought change that has resulted in new programs and experiential learning along with greater emphasis on writing across the curriculum.

However, Kyle McEntee, executive director of the nonprofit legal education policy organization Law School Transparency, still sees law schools being put at risk if they do not change. As the federal government gets weary of law students not paying back their student loans, he foresees Congress ceasing to offer assistance to those individuals going to law school.

“It sounds crazy,” McEntee, a licensed attorney, said, “but it’s going to get to the point where taxpayers are tired of paying $5 billion to $6 billion a year” for law school student loans.

Under pressure

Much of the anxiety, anger and fear surrounding legal education is coming from the uncertain economy as well as the pressures law schools are increasingly under, Conison said. These pressures arise from a number of issues including a student body that learns differently and has different needs, a growth in the number of foreign students matriculating, and a rise in the emphasis on international law.

To help people outside the legal community better understand legal education, Conison writes a blog about law schools on The Huffington Post. The general public has an interest in legal education because of the role the lawyers hold in society, he said, but reacting without understanding the complexity of legal education could hamper law schools, and by extension the legal profession, in the long run.

For example, curtailing law school enrollment, he said, could possibly create a shortage of attorneys 15 years from now.

educationA key way to improve the quality of education, McEntee said, is for law schools to rely more on adjunct faculty. These individuals would bring practical knowledge into the classroom, teaching what the students need to know to be good lawyers.

The traditional law school model based on tenured faculty doing scholarship research is contributing to raising the cost of tuition and is providing the most benefit to the scholars instead of the students, he said. Instead, legal education should be focused on the people who are in the classroom and the people who will be served by the future lawyers.

“We’re not anti-intellectual,” he said, noting there’s a huge value in scholarship and expansion of knowledge, but the question is how much should students and taxpayers fund.

Task force agenda

Shepard expects a “huge part” of the task force’s work will examine what legal education should comprise.

In his position as executive in residence at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, Shepard sees an opportunity to collaborate with his colleagues in the institute and in the Robert H. McKinney School of Law, as well as possibly call upon the law students for help with research.

Conison also sees the work of the task force as very important and possibly having a significant and positive impact on clinical and skills education, law schools and the legal profession.

“I think if the committee does its work, does a good job and puts out thoughtful recommendations, we will have the potential to make a great impact,” Conison said.

Conversely, McEntee argued that the task force should not focus on the “nitty-gritty” of what is taught in the classroom. It should address the issue of cost and look for ways to encourage schools to innovate which, in turn, will lead into the substance of legal education.

The task force is expected to conclude its work in 2014, but Shepard hopes the committee can finish in less than two years. As for how the final recommendations will be received, Shepard has set an ambitious mark.

He wants the task force’s findings to have an impact much like the one that followed the release of 1992’s “The Report of the Task Force on Law School and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap,” commonly know as “The MacCrate Report.” This study, Shepard said, provided the impetus for more hands-on training in law schools and helped spark continuing legal education for practicing lawyers.

“If we do that well,” he said, “I’ll declare victory.”•

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