Deans ready to comply with revised legal education standards

October 8, 2014

The American Bar Association’s revised standards for legal education follow what the job market has been demanding – law school graduates who are practice ready.

Under the new requirements, law schools will have to ensure that students spend more time doing hands-on learning whether by participating in clinics or externships or by taking courses that simulate a legal proceeding. In addition, the schools are going to have to measure how well their students are learning the material throughout the semester rather than doing one evaluation at the end of the term.

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Reactions to the revised standards among the deans at Indiana’s five law schools ranged from enthusiastic to a shrug. They hold differing views on changes to the curriculum, but all the deans felt their programs could easily comply with the new criteria with no or only a small adjustment.

At Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Vice Dean Antony Page described the new standards as a reasonable step forward.

“Overall my reaction is positive,” he said. “I think these are generally desirable changes.”

Notre Dame Law School Dean Nell Jessup Newton was a little surprised that after the ABA had considered making bolder revisions, it didn’t change much. She pointed to the association’s discussion about allowing for paid externships and removing the requirement that all law schools provide a system of tenure for faculty.

Newton said the final product contains only “relatively modest changes.”

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Andrea Lyon, dean of Valparaiso University Law School, sees the revised standards as the ABA sending a clear message that schools have to integrate legal doctrine with skills training. This has been talked about in the legal education community since at least 1992 when the MacCrate report was published but, Lyon pointed out, not much has been done in the interim.

While conceding that change can be difficult, Lyon said the changes need to be made.

“I don’t see it as overwhelming and forcing people to start all over again,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s that onerous.”

The revised standards are the result of a comprehensive review of legal education by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Starting in 2008, the review included public meetings and input while the section’s council debated the proposed changes.

“We think it was a very open and transparent process,” said Barry Currier, ABA managing director of accreditation and legal education.

Although the comprehensive review is complete, the council will revisit the standards and possibly issue memoranda to clarify the standards or answer questions. Currier said the council is anticipating a lot of questions.

Inquiries will likely come from the new requirements for learning outcomes. The council established that law schools will have to measure students’ competency in professional skills, which include knowing and understanding substantive and procedural law; being able to perform legal analysis and reasoning; and exercising proper professional and ethical responsibilities.

In addition, law schools will have to expand how they assess student learning during the three years. Traditionally, law classes have consisted of lectures and reading cases followed by one final exam at the end. Now the ABA wants schools to also include feedback throughout the course.

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Austen Parrish, dean of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said his school will convene a faculty committee to discuss how to evaluate student learning and how to implement more assessment in classroom instruction.

However, he does not expect the development of assessment methods and goals to be a major undertaking. Even before the standards were approved, faculty had been thinking about and doing many of the things now being required.

“I don’t view this as too radical because we knew this was coming down the pipe,” Parrish said.

At Indiana Tech Law School in Fort Wayne, Interim Dean andré douglas pond cummings applauded the ABA’s learning outcomes requirements. Formative assessment, he said, has to be part of the experiential learning process. Students should be given feedback especially as they are doing hands-on work, like drafting motions or role-playing a cross examination.

“It’s an excellent move in the right direction,” he said. “When I was in law school, I had no clue whether I was doing a good job or not. The only way to know if you were on the right track was when you got your grade two months after the semester ended.”

Newton raised questions about how to actually measure outcomes. Two years ago, Notre Dame identified the goals of education along with the skills and values students should have at graduation. The goals are posted on the law school’s website, but Newton acknowledged there is not a mechanism to evaluate whether the graduating students have all those skills and values.

“This strikes me as being educationally trendy, but does it really translate into a better experience for students? I don’t know,” Newton said of the ABA’s outcome requirement. “I think there’s a lot of talk about it, but I don’t know there’s a lot of social science behind what is the best way to do it.”

During the ABA’s annual meeting in August, the House of Delegates also asked that the council take another look at the compensation question for externships.

The council had considered allowing students to receive compensation and educational credit for externships but decided to stick with the old standard which prohibits students from getting credit for paid externships.

Page said there are reasonable arguments on both side of this debate. But, while IU McKinney is concerned about the students’ economic circumstances, it is also concerned about maintaining the best educational experience. Some of the educational benefit may be lost, he said, if students are compensated for the externships they do during the semester.

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When the externship is uncompensated, it is clear the purpose is education and employers have restrictions on what they can assign the student, Page continued. When paid, those restrictions are removed and employers can have the students do any task without regard to the educational value.

Externships are part of the experiential experience that the ABA wants to ensure all students have. In the revised standards, the council increased the requirement for hands-on learning from one credit hour to six.

The council had considered requiring 15 credit hours, the equivalent of a full semester, but decided to take a smaller step after getting strong pushback.

Also during the review process, some voiced concerns that the new standards would hamper law schools’ ability to do different things with curriculum. The ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, led by former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, specifically called for greater innovation.

Parrish echoed the other Indiana deans in finding the revised standards do not handcuff new ideas. Law schools are doing a tremendous amount of innovation, he said, and that will likely continue.•


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