Law schools must answer criticism, AALS executive director says

October 19, 2016

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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