Responding to growing, twin crises in the legal field, the American Bar Association announced on Friday that all accredited law schools must provide their students four years of instruction, rather than the traditional three. To make matters worse, the ABA announced that the requirement applies to anyone who has yet to complete law school. 3L’s at law schools across the nation, many of whom had already secured bar study loans and lined up jobs, will be forced to put off those plans for a year, and put themselves substantially in debt.
The outcry and condemnation from law schools, students, alumni, and legal practitioners were swift and fierce.
“This is an affront to all the students who have worked so hard to get themselves to the finish line in law school and start careers as legal professionals,” said Carly Firenze, president of the Law School Students Assn., a national advocacy group that lobbies the ABA, law schools, and governmental officials on behalf of law students across the country. “We recognize that changes were needed to the law school educational model, but this is just preposterous.”
What caused the ABA to take such a drastic and predictably unpopular measure? The desire to kill two legal birds with one educational stone.
First, there has been a crisis in readiness of recent law school graduates. Bar passage rates nationwide have cratered, leaving students with crushing debt and no prospects for employment as lawyers. Buried in the details of the ABA’s new requirements was a provision that the extra year of law school provide students with detailed instruction on their state’s bar exam.
Secondly, the job market for new lawyers has shrunk, and, while it’s gained ground since the depths of the Great Recession, the growth remains anemic, with widespread automation and outsourcing of work that previously went to entry-level associates. A recent case in which a graduate of ABA-accredited Thomas Jefferson School of Law sued the school for false employment promises clarified the extent of the problem.
The ABA made no bones about how the extra year of law school will address this employment crisis.
“This change makes the decision to go to law school time-prohibitive and/or cost-prohibitive for a number of people who might’ve taken the plunge with things the way they were,” said Richard Astley, chairman of the ABA’s Law School Accreditation Division. “We believe that, in a few short years, this move will shrink the supply of new lawyers to a point where it matches demand.”
“The growing prevalence of two-year accelerated programs, which we believe contributed to the lawyer glut, has been especially alarming to us,” said Janice Garza, head of the Accreditation Division’s Standards and Practices Committee. “Going forward, there will be no accreditation for any such program.”
With many lower tier law schools already facing the financial abyss with years of depressed applicant numbers, there’s sure to be lawsuits over this requirement to come. It would seem that the ABA is interested in seeing some of these schools consolidate or go out of business in the process.