At the beginning of this month, the American Bar Association (ABA) held one of its regular mid-year meetings. There were some useful developments to report, some of which we should look to adopt, and others which we hope won’t happen here.
First, and most importantly, its Commission on the Future of Legal Education has begun its substantive work. This falls within the area of potential adoption. The Commission held an open hearing, and some of the oral and written evidence has been published.
Two academics contributed the most pertinent remarks. Andrew Perlman, Dean at Suffolk University Law School, continued his long campaign to try to drag legal education into the 21st century. He gave a long list of US law schools offering IT-related legal courses in addition to their more substantive law courses. I hope that those with responsibility for the future of legal education in our jurisdiction take note, and pay visits to the most relevant ones, too, to see what we can learn.
In a key part of his evidence, he cites what 21st century legal training looks like at his law school, where students are exposed to concepts like legal project management and process improvement, legal design, automated legal document assembly, expert system tools, electronic discovery, and other areas. ‘We’re also teaching students how to innovate the operations of a law practice to make legal services more affordable for currently underserved clients, and we are giving students paid opportunities to learn about new delivery options.’ Without these skills, I believe our profession will not flourish.
He adds that some law schools offer clinical experience to their students, not just in the traditional area of legal advice to disadvantaged clients, but also by helping legal services organisations perform their work more efficiently through new technologies. This kind of training can also be offered to existing lawyers through continuing legal training courses or new degrees.
As a result, he believes that new areas of work are opening up. Students obtain jobs on graduation that did not exist a few years ago, such as in legal project management, knowledge engineering, and legal solutions architecting. It can help in the drive for access to justice, too, because these new skills - adapted from the business world - contribute towards the efficient delivery of legal services.
There is an interesting and very brief counterpoint to this heavily IT-based argument from the written testimony of a current law student. She says that when she has gone out for work experience, she has found herself ill-trained to look up information in good old hard books, because there is so much emphasis at her law school on online research. So it is clear that a balance needs to be kept, at least for some time, between the old and the new.
The other academic to send in a response had first consulted current law students for their views on the future of legal education. The students wanted more courses with practical and drafting applications, more transactional courses generally, and a facility like those available at medical schools to allow them to sample different practice specialties through a clinical rotation.
On a different topic, it seems that such mid-year meetings may soon be a thing of the past. At the same time as the ABA commission is considering the future of legal education, the ABA itself has had to face some dark truths about its own future. There has been a decline in the number of American lawyers opting to become members of the ABA, leading to a precipitate drop in income of 17% (or $20 million) over the last 5 years. This year another $10 million has to be cut, and so there will be further 10% staff reductions in many areas – plus other proposals to reduce expenditure, such as dropping two meetings a year.
At a time when the Law Society has again had to consider its tripartite relationship with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Legal Services Board, with the SRA agitating for complete independence, the example of the ABA – which is completely independent of the regulatory structure, and relies on voluntary funding – is instructive.
Separate from these developments but more or less contemporaneous with them, President Trump’s latest budget proposals would cut funding to the US’s largest single funder of civil legal aid for low-income people, the Legal Services Corporation. The president had sought to cut all funds to the LSC last year, but Congress maintained its funding of $385 million, and added $15 million to fund legal services for victims of natural disasters. The ABA has run continuous campaigns to keep the LSC adequately funded. It is now protesting again – but with fewer resources at its disposal.
Let us adopt what is useful, and monitor the rest.