Reflections on New ABA Taskforce and Visit to WIlliam Mitchell

On July 31, 2012, outgoing ABA President Bill Robinson, in response to scrutiny by the media and concern expressed from inside and outside the profession, announced the formation of an 18 member taskforce to study the future of legal education.  http://www.abanow.org/2012/07/aba-president-names-task-force-on-the-future-of-legal-education/ Then, last week, many state and national journals reported on the proposed work of the taskforce and its two year charge while the Chair of the taskforce, Randall T. Shepard, former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and current executive in residence at Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute, conversed with a Wall Street Journal (WSJ)  reporter on the  Journal’s law blog http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2012/08/10/law-blog-fireside-chairman-of-aba-task-force-on-legal-education .

Reading that blog interview, I was heartened to read comments by Chair Shepard which put the “business model” attacks which have dominated the public discourse for the past year or so in a broader context.  This broader context, I think, is more likely to result in lasting and less reactionary change.  For example, he emphasized that legal education reform efforts did not originate with the recent economic crisis and that ongoing change has occurred within law schools over the last 15 years.  At the same time, he forewarned that many within law schools believe there are “interesting opportunities for further change.” He also notes that

“the most dramatic change in the American legal education in the last 15 years has been expanding the opportunities students have for real life experiences in clinics and internships. Everyone I know thinks that’s a good thing and it has made a difference.”

I was also impressed by his thoughtful response to suggestions that the way to better prepare law students for practice is for most law schools to train their students on regional matters and local or state laws.   Shepard made clear that the current and future practice of law is not as parochial as such proposed solutions suggest.

According to Shepard, his taskforce will issue a report and recommendations to the ABA at the end of the two years. A few questions and reflections about the work of this taskforce spring to mind:

1) Do we need a new taskforce? Do we need a new report?

2) How will this taskforce coordinate with the ongoing work of the Standards Review Committee? Is its creation an admission that the work of that committee has failed? Or is it a suggestion that a different or supplemental approach is needed?

Reading this piece also reminded me that there are schools out there that have tackled the idea of better preparing students in a systematic manner.    We should recognize the hard work done by many unheralded schools to focus on students’ learning outcomes and their professional development. I would like to see more media and public focus on those schools, that hard work, and those results.

For example, this past April, I had the pleasure of presenting at a faculty workshop at William Mitchell College of Law coinciding with the publication of its Law Review’s edition of “Contemporary Issues in Outcomes- Based Legal Education.” (http://www.wmitchell.edu/lawreview/Volume38/)  My written contribution to the symposium edition, “An Evaluation of Ten Concerns About Using Outcomes in Legal Education” formed the basis of the workshop.    However, William Mitchell faculty are so immersed in outcomes evaluation and so savvy about good teaching techniques that the “presentation” turned into a collaborative discussion.   As a faculty and through a number of committees,  William Mitchell has focused on professional writing outcomes by  mapping the curriculum and developing a first year Proficiency test.   Last year, the law school ran a Pilot Program in one of their first year sections intended to , among other goals,  1) define outcomes for each first year course and the first year curriculum as a whole, 2) introduce students to a range of critical doctrinal foundations, 3) integrate skills, doctrine and professionalism in each first year course, and 4) coordinate a series of first year lawyering/legal writing assignments with the doctrinal courses.   At the time I visited, a report on the program was available.  Student feedback was positive and the committee with oversight for the program recommended its continuation and eventual expansion to the entire first year class.  In another example, William Mitchell faculty identified a list of skills and professional attributes recommended for professional practice and provided information for students on how competency is developed over time from introductory to intermediate to advanced development.

I know that the kind of progress I describe in this post is not the kind of dramatic assertion that will garner headlines or create an outpouring of blog comments beyond our circle of interested educators who want to do better and who “labor in the vineyard.” However, despite the lack of national headlines, I really believe that the thoughtful, painstaking, creative and labor intensive work with which William Mitchell faculty are engaged is where the real story lies. Can we ensure that those who pay for and attend law school are given value, learn professional development skills and gain an understanding of what they already can do well versus what they still need to learn? In other words, in the words of Carnegie, are we truly and effectively Educating Lawyers?

3 Responses

  1. Do we need a new taskforce? I think so. When intelligent, caring lawyers and judges consider the complex issues involved in creating knowledgeable, skilled, and professioal lawyers, they are sure to come up with at least a few new insights that will advance reform efforts. At least that’s been the outcome of every task force and commission that’s examined legal education for the past 40 years.

    Kudos to William Mitchell. Is William Mitchell alone in striving to create a better learning environment for its students? No. Unfortunately, too many law schools are still controlled by self-interested faculty who do not see how their interests would be improved by creating student-centered cultures. Convincing those faculty members to care about educating students for the legal profession is the biggest challenge facing legal education in the Unitied States.

    • Task forces do have something to contribute. I think the problem is that people often want to wait for the results of the task force to actually make any changes. We can’t do that. The task force cannot serve as a stalling tactic. I know, Roy, you would agree with that. There are many exciting changes in process; Best Practices has played, and continues to play, an important role in guiding us toward where we need to be. Thank you!

  2. Is casting aspersions the most effective way to promote buy-in?

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