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Shepard to lead legal education task force

August 29, 2012

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.

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