Draft Law School Reforms Could Have Broader Implications

Equal Justice Works

As we've noted before, there are ways in which the current struggles of law schools sometimes act as an early warning signal of problems in the rest of higher education.

A recently released draft report from the American Bar Association's Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, which examines the current problems in legal education and proposes reforms, illustrates these similarities and proposes solutions that are often germane to other institutions of higher education.

The draft report is forthright about the challenges faced by ABA-approved J.D. programs, including sharply falling applications due to the struggles of legal graduates with the high burden of student debt and diminished job prospects.

The draft report also highlights the dichotomy inherent in law schools: The training of lawyers is both a public and private good. This puts law schools in the position of having to invest in ensuring they graduate competent and ethical lawyers who are also equipped to earn a decent living.

These are pressures faced to a greater or lesser degree by all institutions of higher education today.

[Find out how underemployment affects student debt.]

The draft report also notes the importance of consumer information in determining the value of a law degree. Since this information has not been easily available from law schools or law school rankings, there has been a rise in organizations that strive to provide that information, including sites such as Law School Transparency.

The Student Loan Ranger has seen similar attempts at the undergraduate level. These include President Barack Obama's recent call for a new college ratings system and the Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center.

Law schools, like higher education generally, will benefit from sharing information that helps prospective students accurately assess the value of their education.

Interestingly, one of the draft report's main calls for reform involves making law schools more like undergraduate education. As it points out, undergraduate programs vary widely from selective research institutions to commuter colleges that value access, affordability and practical training.

[Check out the best value schools for undergraduates.]

The Student Loan Ranger agrees that there is room for far more diversity in law school education and that both the schools and, more importantly, students would be better served by having far more options and a far wider range of prices.

One reform suggested by the draft report that would increase this diversity is allowing law school graduates to become admitted to state bars after only two years, with perhaps a year of paid skills-based experience in or out of the law school.

This would allow some law schools to decrease the student debt burden of legal graduates by a third without, in the Student Loan Ranger's opinion, diminishing the practical ability of the attorneys.

Other law schools, of course, might choose to retain a three-year curriculum with opportunities for more intensive scholarship.

[Explore if a two-year law program is right for you.]

Other arenas of higher education would be well advised to at least begin considering similar reforms, especially given the increasing competition from companies offering online education and credentialing. In a decade or two, it's possible both the three-year J.D. and the four-year B.A. may be largely historical artifacts.

The draft report also highlights the practice - shared by both law schools and undergraduate institutions - of providing merit scholarships to students with higher test scores and GPAs in order to compete with other institutions and improve their rankings.

This practice means that lower-scoring students subsidize the higher-scoring ones, and limits the amount of funding available for students from underprivileged families - a disproportionate number of whom are minorities and women.

The Student Loan Ranger is eager to see the reforms outlined in the draft report not just discussed but implemented. We'll be watching and commenting. We're sure others in higher education will be as well.

Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works's educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.