“There is almost universal agreement that the current system is broken,” said Thomas W. Lyons III, a Rhode Island lawyer and a member of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, which gathered here over the weekend for a public hearing at the association’s midyear meeting.
While a few schools are freezing tuition and others are increasing hands-on learning, critics are increasingly saying that the legal academy cannot solve its own problems, partly because of the vested interests of tenured professors tied to an antiquated system. Effective solutions, they insist, will have to be imposed from the outside.
Since law schools are regulated by state courts, that means convincing top state judges of the necessity of major change.
At the task force’s hearing, where lawyers and students gave testimony, most said the time was ripe for that change.
Many recommended reducing the core of law school to two years from three to cut costs. Others suggested that college juniors should be encouraged to go directly to law school, the bar exam should be simplified, accreditation standards should be relaxed to allow for more experiential learning, and states should establish training for the legal equivalent of nurse practitioners.
The task force was set up last summer and was given 24 months to issue its recommendations. But its chairman, Randall T. Shepard, a former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, said a sense of crisis was driving the group to do so this fall.
Over the years, bar associations and foundations have called for similar changes, with limited impact. But leaders in the legal profession say that this time is different.
“We are going to look at everything from scratch,” Laurel G. Bellows, a Chicago lawyer and the president of the American Bar Association, said in an interview. “We have to keep everything on the table.”
Paula Littlewood, a task force member and the executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, put it this way to her colleagues: “There’s a time for incremental change and a time for bold change. This is the time for bold change.”
Hers is one state that is not waiting. It has established a board to create a program for limited-license legal technicians, the first in the country. Within a year, the board is expected to lay out the educational and professional framework for the technicians. They will have more training and responsibility than paralegals but will not appear in court or negotiate on their clients’ behalf.
“The consuming public cannot afford lawyers, and the profession needs to figure that out and own it,” Ms. Littlewood said. “Our hope is to provide more access. The second point is that you have these folks out there doing unauthorized practice, which is harming the public. The hope is to bring them under the tent.”
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