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Asking the Right Questions: Another Look at the Debate on Legal Education

Rebecca Love Kourlis Posted in Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers®, Featured, Informed Opinions

The oldest advice in the world is that the trick is not in knowing the answers—rather it is in knowing the right questions to ask. Such advice has broad application, and in the current debate about legal education, it is quite possible that the wrong questions are currently on the table.

But, before we start shaping the questions, let’s start with what we know. First, there is an enormous unmet legal need in society.  Many, many people cannot afford attorneys to help them with their divorces, wills, contracts, personal injuries, debt collection or traffic tickets. These people are not indigent—that is a separate issue. These are middle class folks who need attorneys at a reasonable rate. Second, we also know that many attorneys now graduating from law schools struggle with large student loan debt. And lastly, we know that many recent graduates are having trouble finding jobs.

So, what are the right questions to ask in order to begin to arrive at solutions to these problems? What about: is the law school curriculum providing value to prospective employers and prospective clients? In other words, are we teaching law students the right things in order to prepare them to practice law in today’s world? Do employers and clients have a sufficient voice in shaping law school curriculum? In that vein, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers seeks to provide a bridge between the academy and the profession so that the law school curriculum mirrors and addresses the demands of the legal market.

Another question: why are there unemployed lawyers when so many people have unmet legal needs? There is supply and there is demand, but the two are not lining up. Is it a question of the debt load that law graduates bear, which disqualifies them from a small, moderate-income practice? Or, are the law schools themselves not teaching young lawyers how to navigate that kind of a practice, or the purpose, reward, and necessity of that kind of practice? There is at least a cognizable argument that law schools are good at educating prospective law professors, appellate judges, or appellate advocates, but that the curriculum is not suitable for teaching students to be actual practicing lawyers. Again, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is seeking to address these questions by providing a platform for law professors and the consumers of legal services to identify what law school graduates should know and the best ways to teach that information and knowledge.

We at Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers fear that the raging debate about the cost of legal education, while a topic worthy of discussion, may be dominating the conversation to the detriment of a broader dialogue about reshaping legal education for the better. The question should not simply be: why does legal education cost so much? Rather, the question should focus on reassessing and re-measuring the value of legal education: to students, to prospective consumers of legal services, and to society at large. We need lawyers: highly professional, competent lawyers. To get there, though, we need a law school process that actually produces those lawyers. How do we do that? That is the question we would like to prioritize.