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Legal Education in Crisis? Bringing Researchers and Resources Together to Generate New Scientific Insights

  • When: March 3–4, 2017
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th Floor, Lakeside, Chicago IL 60611

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As the new millennium began to take shape, U.S. law schools suddenly came under intense criticism and increasing economic pressure.  By the end of the first decade, news of the breakdown of U.S. legal education was blaring from legal blogs and high-profile news outlets.  For example, an editorial in the New York Times from November of 2011 announced that: American legal education is in crisis.  The economic downturn has left many recent law graduates with crushing student loans and bleak job prospects.  The law schools have been targets of lawsuits by students and scrutiny from the United States Senate for alleged false advertising about potential jobs. Yet, at the same time, more and more Americans find that they cannot afford any kind of legal help.

Interestingly, this widely-noted coverage of the situation linked the growing disaster to “an outdated instructional and business model,” relying on a 2007 Carnegie Foundation report that had recommended changes in U.S. law school pedagogy.  But in searching the Carnegie Report for any mention of “crisis,” we find only discussions of a “crisis of professionalism” that “is manifest in a decline of civility and an increase in adversarialism, a decline in the role of the counselor and in lawyers’ competence, including ethical competence, and a new sense of the law as a business.”  The Carnegie Report recommended improved training in practical skills (their “second apprenticeship”) and in legal ethics (their “third apprenticeship”).  Building in part from linguistic empirical work on legal education, the Report viewed the traditional “signature pedagogy” of law schools (the Socratic Method) as a somewhat mixed blessing, but certainly not as the root of any impending crisis.

From the outset, public discourse surrounding the law school crisis has encouraged the proliferation of unexamined generalizations and ideas -- often without much clarity.  Thus as we’ve seen, in some accounts the crisis was linked with an outdated Socratic pedagogy.   But calls for increased practical training had been endemic to debates over law school since the time of the Legal Realists in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, if not before (see, e.g., Frank 1933).  Decades later, the MacCrate Report and another ABA-sponsored report in 1996 were still calling for similar reforms.  While the economic downturn came close in time to the Carnegie Report, linking the two is far from obvious – but this became common in reporting and advocacy surrounding legal reform.  This is just one example of uncritical leaps and links in the evolving tale of U.S. law school crises.

The public narrative, fueled also by some law professors’ writings, went on to generate more ideas and outright speculations about the source of the crisis.  While some commentators pointed to the effects of an economic recession and declining numbers of jobs in law, others blamed law professors and law schools.  According to these characterizations, law professors were indolent and uncaring, gaming the system to retain high-paying jobs while working little and giving scant attention to their students’ needs.  (Ironically, one leading critic in this vein began by “outing” himself as just such a professor – attracting a great deal of media attention despite some other professors’ protests that his own self-critique could hardly be taken as evidence of a general trend.)  Some thoughtful accounts asked about the overall structure of legal education, expressing concern about destructive competitive forces focused more on winning rankings battles than on delivering sound and cost-effective training.   Other commentators warned that the combined effects of these battles and a shrinking market for higher paying law jobs would leave law graduates with astronomical loan debt that they would have no chance of paying off (especially given the lower-paying jobs in which they would now land).   Missing from much of the debate were broader considerations such as trends in educational institutions beyond just the law schools; the longer history of large law firm “tournaments” and concomitant pressures; the larger picture of legal employment beyond the large law firms; the fact that law schools and their graduates are not all alike; the effects of rising numbers of law students coming to the U.S. from abroad; and more.  Thus this is an important juncture for coordination of scientific efforts so that we can develop a systematic picture of what is happening in legal education.

This workshop seeks to further and consolidate existing research in the area, by bringing scholars who are guided by social scientific theories and methods into conversation with each other, from across the social sciences.  Through this shared interdisciplinary conversation, researchers will be able to use their differing disciplinary perspectives to shed light on the complex interplay of economic, cultural, social structural, political, institutional, and other factors shaping legal education today.  The workshop will also provide foundations for an ongoing research network.

Read the full conference program.

Please note: DAY TWO takes place at The W Hotel, 644 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611, 6th Floor (Industry 1 & 2)

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