The American Bar Association met last weekend in Dallas Texas. Thanks to winter storm Nemo, I missed the meeting – the first time I have not made it to an ABA midwinter or annual meeting in some 15 years.
In Vermont, the storm was really no big deal. We had 8 or 10 inches of snow, which is really not an unusual winter occurrence here. But south and east there was a lot of snow, and the new airline protocols cancel flights early, so there was no way for me to get to Dallas.
Watching the meeting from afar, one sees a different perspective. Ordinarily as I moved from breakfast caucuses, to award lunches, to speeches, programs, receptions, and banquets, I would have been enmeshed in the minutia of the meeting. Delegates would have been engaged in last minute deal-making about the texts of House Resolutions. In the background, I’d have been hearing about maneuvering by candidates for ABA leadership positions vying for advantage before the nominating committee. And all the while, I’d be greeting old friends and making new contacts.
That kind of information that is the currency of such a meeting is still finding its way to me through official and unofficial sources.
But from this distance, the only meeting news the made an impression through the mass media was about the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. The Task Force held a public hearing at the meeting. According to the New York Times story entitled A Call for Drastic Changes in Educating New Lawyers, (February 10, 2013), the precipitous drop in law school applications has put all kind of change on the table. Proposals from cutting law school from three to two years, to limited-license technicians, to change in accreditation rules, were under discussion.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve frequently criticized the current status of legal education, arguing that a significant component of the regular course of study should be practical education in the basic things practicing lawyers do all the time, like negotiation, document drafting, and case management.
Even though some of the remedies suggested sound as bad as the problems we confront (cutting back to two years being one), I ‘m encouraged by the fact that discussion seems to be focusing on fundamental rather than incremental change.
I do wish that I could have participated in the Task Force hearing. Looking at what’s wrong with legal education is itself too narrow a focus. What’s wrong with legal education mirrors a fundamental problem with the legal profession and the larger legal system of which the profession is a part.
None of these elements — the legal system, the legal profession, or legal education — are designed to meet the needs of the average person. It is not that most people don’t need access to justice. They do. They can’t afford to access a system that is attuned to meeting the needs of business, large not-for-profits and government. We do a good job of meeting the legal needs of those institutions, and that’s fine.
But we could do a lot of good for the public, and for prospective lawyers, by providing law students with the knowledge and techniques required to meet the legal needs of the middle class. It’s past time to get about it.