High Debt, Poor Job Prospects Expose Legal Education Flaws

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Members of the ABA Task Force have entertained all sorts of ideas for fixing law schools' problems. These include reducing the number of years required for a legal education from three to two; encouraging students to go to law school directly from their junior year in college; and creating a new category of legal professional comparable to nurse-practitioners in medicine—technicians whose training would be more than that of a paralegal but less than a lawyer. They could provide legal services but could not represent clients in court.

The Bar Association of Washington State, says Lyons, has already established a program to produce such "limited-license" technicians.

One group that came in for special blame during the Task Force's meeting was tenured law school professors, who, according to the New York Times, "were criticized as having high pay, low productivity and a remote relationship with the practice [as opposed to the theory] of law."

Law schools, says Lyon, exist more for the benefit of professors than students. "They're among the most highly paid tenured professors in academia," he says.

Lyon's fellow Task Force member Jim Chen, a former dean of the University of Louisville's law school, told the Times that tenured professors are a law school's biggest expense. If, to reduce tuition, the curriculum were to be cut from three years to two, Chen told the Times, professors would have to take a cut in pay. But, said he, they would never accept it; so change would have to be forced on them from outside, possibly by state courts.

Critics' characterization of a tenured law professor's life—high pay, not a lot of teaching and a predilection for theory over practice--suggests an entrenched caste modeled on Professor Kingsfield, the imperious Harvard Law professor in the movie "The Paper Chase."

Professor Ngai Pindell takes strong exception to that characterization. Pindell is co-president of SALT , the Society of American Law Teachers, which represents law professors as well as other professionals in legal education.

Pindell, who is also associate dean of the law school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professes not to know what tenured law professors make, but says he suspects they are no more highly paid than dental school or medical school professors.

The legal profession, he says, does indeed face problems delivering its services to a changing market. But the fault does not "lie at the feet of legal professors," who, he says, are by nature problem-solvers. Although looking for a villain is tempting, while professors "are part of the problem" they also, he says, can be part of the solution.

Professor Jackie Gardina, another co-president of SALT, says in an email to ABC News that that though law professors may be an "easy scapegoat," they are not obstacles to reform. They have often pushed for reform within their institutions, she writes, giving examples that include one from her own institution, Vermont Law School. Its General Practice Program equips graduates with what she calls practice-ready skills.

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