The Illinois State Bar Association’s Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Debt has issued a final Report with a striking set of recommendations. The Bar Association’s Board of Governors endorsed the Report and Recommendations on March 8; the Association’s full assembly will vote on them in June.
The full Report deserves study by all legal educators, as well as practitioners who care about the future of the profession and legal education. The committee compellingly describes the plight of graduates burdened with high debt, as well as the challenges that debt causes for employers and clients. The Report then explores the companion problem, that graduates are poorly prepared for the jobs available to them. Here are just a few of the committee’s many recommendation:
1. The federal government should cap loans available to law students.
2. The government should also impose outcome-based requirements for schools to maintain loan eligibility. A school, for example, would lose its loan eligibility if more than 35% of its graduates failed to reduce their loan principal by at least $1 during a given period.
3. Congress should make private educational loans dischargeable in bankruptcy, using the pre-2005 definition of “financial hardship.”
4. The ABA should modify accreditation standards to expand the credits that students may earn through distance education.
5. The ABA should require schools to gather and report more information about job outcomes, including outcomes over the course of their graduates’ legal careers. The latter requirement would not involve tracking all graduates, but could rely upon sampling.
6. Law schools should focus on practice-oriented courses and teach fewer “exotic” courses. They should also teach law office management.
7. Law schools should include judges and practitioners on faculty hiring and tenure committees. “Practicing judges and lawyers,” the Report suggests, “can provide unique insight into the candidate’s skills as a practitioner and will ensure that the law school hires faculty who are best able to educate law students for practice.”
8. State supreme courts should find ways to reduce the cost of gaining bar admission. Courts should consider allowing third-year law students to take the bar exam, as Arizona has done. They should also consider Wisconsin’s model of granting a “diploma privilege” to graduates of in-state schools who obtain a specified GPA and complete designated courses.
9. Bar Association members should assist pre-law advisers in giving debt and career counseling to students interested in attending law school.
10. Bar Associations should also work with law schools to develop apprenticeship programs that could start during the third year of law school.
The Report contains many other recommendations, as well as fuller discussion of the rationales for each proposal. John E. Thies, President of the Illinois State Bar Association, created the Special Committee that produced the Report.