Existential Crisis and Bar Exams: what is really cruelest?

Perhaps it is because this blog has been discussing the need to change since 2009, so many of our contributors have been working to reform and improve legal education for decades and the Carnegie Report and Stuckey’s BEST PRACTICES FOR LEGAL EDUCATION both celebrated 5th birthdays earlier this year.   Maybe it is because our faculty and administration spent Friday evening gathering with our graduates at a Dean’s reception to provide support and succor to our July Bar Exam takers.   Whatever the reason, I can feel myself becoming very frustrated with the constant barrage of  johnny-come-lately and unproductive descriptions of the legal education crisis.

Being a strong  and longstanding advocate for reform of legal education, shouldn’t I be feeling  triumphant, or at the very least,  justified that what we warned about came to pass, that people are finally paying attention?  Instead what I feel is extremely protective of my current students, recent graduates and other poor souls who read each new assaultive journalistic “contribution” with fear, depression and hopelessness.  This morning , when many of us opened our NYT Sunday Review – in textured paper form or in handy  online edition – we were faced with Sunday Observer Lincoln Caplan’s piece “An Existential Crisis for Law Schools”  and his opening line “July is the cruelest month for recent law school graduates.”  

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/an-existential-crisis-for-law-schools.html?_r=1&ref=opinion Caplan notes that state bar exams scheduled next week are “make or break” affairs.   He then goes on for the next ten paragraphs repeating the oft-told story about how the economics of  legal education has changed for the worse and quoting Dean Frank Wu of Hastings Law:  “This is Detroit in the 1970’s : change or die.”

I think what is really cruel is publishing this piece right before anxious law graduates need to summon up all their positive energy to take an exam which in NY has 22 subjects and for which one must take an expensive bar course to learn the “gaming” of how to pass this test.   I think it is cruel to blithely assert that law schools fail to “train lawyers for public service or provide them with sufficient preparation for practical work” in that same article when this is the time to ask why doesn’t the bar exam have a clinical component or why don’t we have a public service or practical alternative to a largely multiple choice test?  If we really want to train civic professionals who deal with real people would we not make the examination of who becomes a lawyer more like the practice of law?  I am more interested in hearing about the practical opportunity this “crisis” gives us to change the outdated practice of written bar exams.  Maybe then, July would become a time of challenge – to demonstrate recent law graduates skills, values and knowledge -rather than cruel ritual.

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3 Responses

  1. Great response! As a colleague of Judith Wegner and a clinical teacher, I had the exact same reaction to the column. Maybe you can send this to the NYT letters editor…? Thanks for getting this sentiment out there.

  2. His article is part of the steady drumbeat beaten by critics of the current model of legal education, and I agree many of us have been concerned about legal education and its role in preparing qualified lawyers for a while. But he also makes a point about the economics of the profession. I believe that the profession’s economic structure has resulted in a crisis of justice where the poor and now many in the middle class have no meaningful access to lawyers and thus to our justice system. I think we, as a profession, need to look at the unmet need for legal services in this country and then look at the number of unemployed and underemployed lawyers and question what is wrong with this picture!

  3. Speaking of outdated practices, why aren’t bar exams open book? What lawyer would offer legal advice without the benefit of some research via the Internet or one of their law books or practice manuals?

    We law profs emphasize the importance of preparation, attention to detail and checking sources but our bar exams test the ability to memorize details that are forgotten a week after the exam. Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow the graduates to bring whatever resources they need to the exam so they can look up the right answer instead of guessing. That would make the exam more like the real life practice of law.

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