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Law Schools in for a Shake Up

An American Bar Association task force on law schools is suggesting several major changes to a legal education, among them: reducing the length of programs from three years to two, shifting the focus of legal education towards the practice of law rather than theory, and, perhaps most interesting, providing training for lower-level legal assistants along the lines of nurse practitioners in medicine.

As the New York Times reports, bar associations, lawyers, and college presidents are facing the problems of falling enrollments and graduates who emerge deep in debt and unprepared for an extremely competitive legal market. Change is coming, and some states have already begun seize the moment:

[Washington]…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.”

But one group remains steadfastly opposed to change—tenured professors:

Jim Chen, a professor of law at the University of Louisville and a former dean of its law school, said that to reduce law school from three years to two would mean that, in turn, tenured professors, whom he called the biggest expense for law schools, would have to take a one-third cut in pay. But, Mr. Chen said, they would never accept that, and the impetus for change would have to come from State Supreme Courts.

This is a sign of things to come. Law is not the only American profession that is going to be restructured in radical fashion. We’re already seeing changes in finance and health care. Tenured professors in law schools are joining the swelling ranks of tenured professors in a range of disciplines facing similar demands for change.

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