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Friday, May 24, 2024

Judging the Future of Law Schools

Back in 1969, when Harrison High School graduate Randall Shepard headed off to study law at Yale University, he was part of a record legion of students who aspired to the legal profession. That year, the nation’s law schools saw more than a 23-percent increase in first-year enrollment over the previous year, signaling a decades-long boom in law school attendance.

Law school wasn’t just the ticket to a meaningful career back then. It held the possibility of romance and adventure, at least in the public’s eye. In 1970, when Shepard was in his second year at Yale, law school (the one at Harvard) was the setting for the year’s top-grossing movie, “Love Story,” and a best-selling book, The Paper Chase.

Since then, Shepard has had a distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist: A former adviser to the late Evansville Mayor Russell Lloyd, he served as a Vanderburgh County Superior Court Judge until he was appointed to the Indiana Supreme Court at age 38 in 1987. He became the nation’s youngest chief justice two years later and retired last March as the nation’s longest serving chief justice.

Shepard still loves the law, but the schools teaching it are in what he calls “a crisis.” They’re seeing rapidly declining enrollment brought on by an increasing awareness among potential students that law school is no longer a sure bet when it comes to employment security and financial prosperity.

Last year, according to the Law School Admissions Council, applications to the nation’s law schools were at a 30-year low. The numbers marked a 20 percent decrease from 2011 and 38 percent drop from 2010. Here’s a better set of numbers to reflect the situation: The number of law school applicants last year was just over 50,000; six years earlier, it was 100,000. And here’s a recent headline, from a Forbes magazine blog, to sharpen the point: “Why Attending Law School Is The Worst Career Decision You’ll Ever Make.”

Those declining numbers — and the rising number of headlines they’re generating — have thrust Shepard into a critical role. Last August, in the wake of a scandal involving law schools falsifying admissions to boost their rankings so they could boost their applicant pool, Shepard was tapped by the American Bar Association to lead its Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.

The 22-member task force was given two years to come up with a plan to fix what one of the members calls “a broken system.” Shepard has accelerated the timeline, ordering a first draft of recommendations to be ready by late summer. Why the sense of urgency? As Shepard recently told a reporter from the Congressional Review Quarterly: “It’s a very serious gale that’s blowing.”

Thoughtful leader

In Shepard, the ABA turned to a man who’s embraced the role of reformer. In his 24 years as chief justice, he led significant efforts to modernize the state’s antiquated court system. He may be best known outside legal circles for the role he played in co-chairing the 2007-2008 blue-ribbon Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform with former Democrat Gov. Joe Kernan. The commission findings — critical of local governments still wed to models that worked in 19th century rural Indiana — are still known as the “Kernan-Shepard” report.

With this new assignment, Shepard is stepping into what The New York Times called, in a story on the task force, a “soul-searching debate” on the future of the legal profession.

Shepard said the challenges triggering the debate are “without precedent.” Here are some to consider: When Shepard went to law school, his tuition was close to $2,000 a year. It’s now more than $50,000 at his alma mater. Yale is an elite, private school, but law schools across the nation have raised their sticker prices so high that 85 percent of their graduates are leaving with an average student debt load of almost $100,000. Meanwhile, as starting salaries for law school grads have declined (falling $9,000 between 2009 to 2010), the median income for those recent grads is about $60,000 per year.

That’s for those who can find work. A Wall Street Journal analysis last summer of information provided by the American Bar Association found just 55 percent of 2011 law school grads were employed full-time as lawyers nine months after graduation. Only 8 percent of those 2011 grads were in the well-paying and highly coveted “big law” jobs with firms that employ 250 or more attorneys.

“The thumbnail list of woes is easy: rising tuition, increasing student debt, fewer job prospects, and falling admissions,” says Shepard, describing the pressures facing the nation’s law schools and their graduates. “They’re all moving in adverse directions at record rates.”

A list of solutions isn’t so easy. Over the course of the last year, Shepard and the task force have held a series of meetings with lawyers, law students, and legal-education experts around the nation. They couldn’t agree on what’s ailing law schools, much less the fixes.

That doesn’t worry Jay Conison, former dean of the Valparaiso University Law School and a task-force member, who said Shepard was tapped for his role for a reason.

“He’s well known as a consensus-builder and a creative problem-solver,” Conison said.

The decline in law school applicants is worrisome for Shepard for many reasons. Among them is that it coincides with a rising percentage of Americans whose legal needs are going unmet.

“There are very large numbers of people who come to court without lawyers,” Shepard said. “They’re not poor enough to qualify for legal aid and they’re not well enough off to be able to pay the going (legal) rates.”

Shepard has national experience that made him a leading candidate for the taskforce assignment. He’s chaired the National Center for State Courts, presided over the Conference of Chief Justices, and headed the ABA’s committee that oversees accreditation of the nation’s 180 law schools.

But it’s his concern for how the public has been impacted by the problems of law schools that caused then-ABA president Bill Robinson to ask him to head the task force. “He understands that legal education is the portal to effective advocacy, which is a key ingredient to effective justice,” Robinson said.

Legal conundrum

Coming up with a blueprint for the future of legal education involves scrutinizing the past behavior of the educators.

Shepard said over the past decade, law schools were raising their tuition rates while knowing they were turning out more graduates than there were jobs. It caught up with them when some of those unemployed law school grads fought back in the only way they knew how: Class-action lawsuits have been filed against 15 law schools by their graduates, alleging the schools used deceptive post-grad employment numbers to boost their rankings and attract more students.

The American Bar Association, responsible for the accreditation of law schools, responded, too. Over the last two years, the ABA has sanctioned two big law schools (University of Illinois and Villanova University) for falsifying admission data.

Part of the crisis in law schools, Shepard says, has been brought on by the profound changes in the legal profession. Among the negative pressures is the rise of technology and the Internet that makes legal research faster, easier, cheaper, and much more accessible to non-lawyers.

Shepard cites LegalZoom as an example. It’s a “do-it-yourself” online legal-documents service that advertises itself as an alternative to the traditional law office. The company, with revenues that topped $156 million last year, boasts on its website that it’s served 2 million customers over the last 10 years. Those customers are doing the work once done by lawyers, Shepard says.

The task force has heard some bold proposals aimed at helping law schools adapt to the profound changes in the legal profession. They include shrinking the core of law school to two years from three to cut costs, and broadening the number of legal occupations that wouldn’t require a full law degree. This might create the legal equivalent of a nurse practitioner, for instance.

Shepard and the task force have to corral all those ideas into a report and a series of recommendations that will eventually end up in front of the governing body of the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools. He predicts they’ll spark vigorous debate in the legal profession.

He went into the assignment with one rule of law: “A part of what I do in a setting like this is do what we tell jurors: Don’t reach a final conclusion until all the evidence is in and you’ve heard the arguments on both sides.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for the 13 Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.-owned newspapers in Indiana.

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