10 Leaders in Legal Education Reform

Few would argue that there are a whole host of problems with the current status quo in the legal education system that need to be addressed. Students are charged exorbitant sums, only to enter a job market where their chances of finding employment (in the legal profession, anyway) are fairly slim. Many are beginning to argue that schools need to stop focusing on profit and start genuinely helping college kids become the next generation of law professionals. Whether that means reducing the amount of debt they’ll carry, helping them find jobs or just being honest about the realities of attending law school in a recession depends on who you ask. Here are some people and organizations leading the charge for legal education reform today.

  1. Massachusetts School of Law, Andover

    Dean of MSL, Andover, Lawrence Vevel, is one of the most outspoken law school reformers today, and even wrote a book called The Gathering Peasants’ Revolt in American Legal Education documenting what he sees as some of the major issues. He is highly critical of the new ABA requirements, which he believes have caused the price of law school tuition to skyrocket, causing problems for students trying to pay for school and administrators trying to keep up with them to avoid being disaccredited. While the MSL is still struggling with tuition issues, Vevel has taken on a different model for admissions and education, not requiring students to take the LSAT and modeling their legal education process after that of medical schools rather than the traditional law school format.

  2. Richard Matasar

    Matasar came under pretty harsh fire following an article in the New York Times which took a critical look at his management of the New York Law School. While the NYLS may still be falling into many of the traps that cause so many to call for legal education reform, Matasar is one of the few actually speaking out. Whether he truly believes that changes should be made is up for debate — given his own reluctance to lead the way in making these change — but few in his position even go so far as to suggest they should be made at all. That has to count for something. Matasar’s biggest problems with the legal education system? That is doesn’t actually help students succeed, instead preying on their dreams and desires. Matasar may be a dead fish when it comes to really pushing reform, but he’s helped start a major debate nationwide about legal education, however unintentional that may have been.

  3. Elizabeth Mertz

    Mertz is a leader in the field of legal anthropology and legal language, but she has also been a voice behind many of the criticisms of legal education. Just this year, Mertz gave a talk at Princeton called "On Law School Reform," which addressed the current reforms proposed by the ABA, the ramifications of the Carnegie Report and her own research into the linguistic structure of legal education. Mertz argues that even the language of legal education needs to be changed, as it divorces students from their humanity and morality, homogenizes diversity and creates lawyers unable to see the very real ramifications of their actions.

  4. Association of American Law Schools

    While the American Bar Association has come under fire in recent years for their questionable guidelines for law schools bumping the cost of tuition, the Association of American Law Schools has tried to work in the opposite direction. There are undoubtedly still some serious issues that need to be worked out in regard to the quality, price and usefulness of legal education, but the AALS has taken an active role in trying to figure out how to take legal education forward into the next decade. In 2010, they held a conference in response to the results of a Carnegie study suggesting there were better models for legal education than the current one. The conference pushed for change in educational theories, methodologies and clinical coursework for students, which is a baby step in the right direction.

  5. Barbara Boxer

    Many have been outraged about the misleading statistics law schools have been showing to students in order to boost their enrollment, but perhaps none more than California Senator Barbara Boxer. Boxer has made it her mission to force schools to be honest in their dealings with students, asking the ABA to present her with plans to reform current procedures so students will have access to accurate information. This will help them choose education programs and career training that will best suit their professional and financial needs. Currently, many schools are giving students a false impression of how easy it will be to find a job post-graduation, counting part-time positions and even some outside the legal field in their employment stats. Boxer hopes to force law schools to be more transparent in all their dealings with prospective students.

  6. David Lat

    Founder and editor of the legal blog Above the Law, David Lat has quite a few things to say about the legal profession and legal education — and not all of them are positive. When asked by the New York Times about what he would do to reform legal education, Lat proposed a return to apprenticeships, a practice that would cut law school down to only one year instead of three and have students quickly earning paychecks and gaining practical experience in the real world. While Lat admits there are limitations to this model, he believes it is a much more practical and cost-efficient way to educate students about the law school — especially given that many employers complain about new law grads having no idea how to apply what they’ve learned in school to real life. He is highly critical of the American Bar Association, whom he says should be pushing harder for school reform, as institutions themselves certainly aren’t going to make changes when they are making huge profits off of students.

  7. George Leef

    The director of research at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Leef is in a unique position to push for change in the legal education system. Like Lat, he believes the bulk of what is taught in law schools can easily be learned elsewhere– like on the job or through rigorous autodidaction. He too is highly critical of the ABA, saying it gives students only one option when it comes to being a lawyer – one that comes with an incredibly steep commitment of time and money. Where Leef differs from Lat, however, is he believes that anyone, whether they’ve attended law school or not, should be allowed to take the bar exam. If the test is really as hard as it is claimed to be and if law school is really a necessity, then no one who hasn’t graduated should be able to pass anyway. A bold assertion, and one that could radically change the face of law if it ever came to pass.

  8. Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier

    Sturm and Guinier have worked together on a number of academic projects about the legal field, and in 2007 they published an article in the Vanderbilt Law Review titled "The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity." The article details some of the problems with legal education today and looks at the way they are affecting students. At the crux of Sturm and Guinier’s article, however, is the fact that it is incredibly hard to make changes in legal education because of the culture that law schools constructs — something of which others on this list have also been highly critical. The women assert that the culture of law schools, which promotes intense competition among students and limits their individuality, makes it nearly impossible for curricular reforms to have any real effect on learning and development as lawyers. While the article was well-received, the validity has been further confirmed by the slowness with which changes are being made, if they’re being made at all, to legal education.

  9. Bryan Garner

    Lawyer, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, founder of LawProse and professor at Southern Methodist Law School, Bryan Garner gets around in the legal world and is no stranger to reform. Garner has tried in the past to reform the standards for legal writing, with the aim of making the medium more understandable to those without the requisite education, but was met with vehement opposition from those in the profession. Garner was another legal professional who shared his thoughts on law school reform with the New York Times. Garner’s solution to the current problem? Focus more on building law skills that will actually be helpful on the job, especially improving legal writing. He believes the second and third years of law school should be loaded with research and essays and students shouldn’t just be taught to be proficient speakers, but writers as well. While this may not fix everything wrong with the legal education system, it might just help law students emerge more well-rounded and ready to take on the challenges of the real world.

  10. Stephen R. Marsh

    Texas-based lawyer Stephen Marsh isn’t shy about airing out his grievances when it comes to legal education. In 1995, he wrote three essays on the topic of legal education reform, proposing why a change is necessary, solutions that could work and real world ways to apply these solutions. Marsh believes legal education as it is today obstructs learning and leaves big gaps, especially on topics students really need to know. Marsh advocates using updated teaching methods, forming study groups for students and creating courses that focus more on core materials and practices. While legal education is incredibly slow to change, perhaps someday a few of these methods will be implemented in actual law school classrooms.

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