Education panel says character matters more than scores

The 7th Circuit Bar Association annual meeting and judicial conference started its first round of discussions by talking about a continuing source of anxiety in the legal profession – law school.

A three-person panel opened with a discussion Monday morning on the demands of legal market, the skills that attorneys need to best serve their clients and whether the model of legal education needs to change. Pointing to studies from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System and the Law School Admission Council, the panel dismantled some common conceptions among the practicing bar.

Attorneys and judges of the 7th Circuit are in Indianapolis for the meeting and conference, which began Sunday and concludes Tuesday. The three-day event includes panel discussions on a variety of topics and a dinner Monday evening featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Holocaust Survivor Eva Mozes Kor.

Opening the plenary session was “The Future of Law School,” which included the panel of Rebecca Love Kourlis, executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System; Randall Shepard, retired chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court; and William Henderson, Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor and co-found of Lawyer Metrics.

The IAALS research shows that law firms are believed to want graduates to emerge from law school practice ready. However, the reality is that the firms expect new lawyers will have to learn on the job but the firms want these new arrivals to have a blend of legal skills, professional competency and character traits like a strong work ethic, common sense and resilience.

Similarly, the 2008 LSAC study faults the heavy reliance on LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages. The best predictor of lawyer effectiveness are personality traits like emotional stability, self-control, conscientiousness and ambition.

During the question-and-answer portion of the discussion, Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana asked Henderson whether law schools are looking more at an applicant’s personal makeup when deciding whom to enroll.

Henderson cited the familiar refrain from law schools that they are constrained by the U.S. News & World Report rankings. This annual survey rates the quality of law schools, in part, by the average GPA and LSAT scores of the students. Flouting that criteria comes with the potential price, Henderson said, of sinking a school’s position on the rankings and raising consternation among the alumni.

Kourlis disagreed, saying blaming U.S. News was too easy. The profession, she said, can make changes that would incentivize law schools to produce a different kind of attorney and, possibly, make changes to the bar exam.

She also noted the irony in legal education. Some of the law schools that are offering the most innovative curriculum, in particular courses designed to build writing skills, are generally in the bottom quartile and struggling for market share.    

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