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Deborah Merritt is the John Deaver Drinko/Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law at The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. She has received multiple teaching awards for her work in both clinical and podium courses. With Ric Simmons, she developed an "uncasebook" for teaching the basic evidence course. West Academic has adopted their template to create a series of texts that reduce the traditional focus on appellate opinions. Deborah writes frequently about changes in legal education and the legal profession.

Law Schools Should Set Reasonable List Prices That Reflect Earnings Available to Their Graduates

July 21st, 2017 / By

The following was part of a series published by the National Law Journal called Law Schools Are Losing Smart Applicants. How Do They Lure Them Back?” The NLJ asked 11 people from inside and outside the legal academy for responses, including me and Kyle McEntee. His response has been republished here.

Law schools should set reasonable list prices that reflect the earnings available to their graduates. Our high sticker/discount system requires applicants to commit to legal education, invest significant time and money studying for the LSAT, and risk rejection from multiple schools—all before they learn the true cost of their legal education. That system discourages the type of careful thinkers and planners who once found law school attractive.

On campus, we should integrate much more hands-on work throughout the curriculum. Millennials like to do things, not just read about them. Employers, clients and cognitive scientists agree that “doing” is essential to develop professional expertise. Until we embrace that wisdom, we won’t attract talented students back to law school—or prepare them to serve their clients effectively.

Finally, we should replace mandatory grading curves with more nuanced assessments of student learning. Outcome-based assessment helps students focus on the specific knowledge and skills they need to master. Students learn more and employers receive more helpful information about a graduate’s abilities. An educational program that promises to foster expertise, rather than ranking students on a fixed curve, will draw more talented applicants.

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Provisional Accreditation for UNT-Dallas

June 6th, 2017 / By

The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has granted provisional accreditation to the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law. As I wrote last fall, this innovative law school well deserved a chance to try its wings.

Here are some distinctive features of the school:

  • 51.4% of its students are minority students. National Jurist recently named the school the third most diverse law school in America.
  • The student body is notable for its diversity in age and prior work experience, in addition to race and gender.
  • Tuition for 2016-17 was $15,768 for full-time residents and $11,653 for part-time residents.
  • During 2016-17, more than half (51.8%) of students received scholarships, with a median grant of $1,250 (for both full-time and part-time students).
  • Entering scholarships depend upon academic record, socioeconomic background, first-generation status, and community service. There are no conditional scholarships.
  • The school requires completion of courses in accounting and finance for lawyers; interviewing and counseling; negotiation and conflict resolution; effective oral communication; and the business of law.
  • The school also requires students to complete two fully experiential courses (drawn from clinics, externships, or practicums)
  • Many upper-level courses incorporate writing, research, and/or skills segments. Students must complete multiple segments in each of these three categories (in addition to required writing, research, and skills courses)
  • Students must demonstrate proficiency in several practice-related technologies.

The first group of 74 graduates will receive their degrees this month–and those degrees are now from an ABA-accredited law school. Godspeed UNT-Dallas and grads!

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Bar Exam Scores and Lawyer Discipline

June 3rd, 2017 / By

Robert Anderson and Derek Muller have posted a provocative paper, The High Cost of Lowering the Bar, in which they argue that “bar exam score is significantly related to likelihood of State Bar discipline throughout a lawyer’s career.” Thus, they warn, “lowering the bar examination passing score,” as several California law deans have advocated, “will likely increase the amount of malpractice, misconduct, and discipline among California lawyers.”

Anderson and Muller urge the state bar to collect more detailed data on the relationship between bar scores and lawyer discipline–and then to consider the possible impact on attorney misconduct if the Supreme Court lowers the passing score. “The data we have collected,” they conclude, “should raise serious concerns about the effect on consumers of lowering the passing score.”

What type of correlation did Anderson and Muller identify? Should it affect decisions about the passing score for the bar exam? Let’s take a closer look.

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More on the Bar Exam: Correlation and Competence

May 31st, 2017 / By

Derek Muller has identified an intriguing study of alternative ways to assess bar applicants. In 1980, the California bar examiners worked with a research team to explore the desirability of testing a wider range of lawyering skills on the bar exam. The researchers designed a two-day supplement to the bar exam and invited all July test-takers to participate in the supplemental exercise. More than 4,000 test-takers volunteered and, using appropriate sampling methods, the researchers chose 500 to participate. A few volunteers were unable to complete the exercise due to illness, so the final sample included 485 bar examinees.

These examinees completed the supplemental exercises in August 1980, shortly after taking the regular July exam. For two days, the examinees interviewed clients, drafted discovery plans, prepared letters, wrote trial briefs, cross-examined witnesses, and made arguments to mock juries. Each day’s work involved 5-6 tasks focused on a single client matter. Professional actors played the role of clients, and the researchers developed elaborate protocols for scoring the exercises.

How did results on the supplemental exam compare to those on the conventional test?

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Trends in Law Firm Staffing

May 28th, 2017 / By

Altman Weil has released its annual report on “Law Firms in Transition.” The report, based on a survey of managing partners of law firms with at least 50 lawyers, documents continued change in the way law firms staff their matters.

More than half of these law firms now use contract lawyers (57.1%) or part-time lawyers (52.7%). Almost half (41.8%) employ staff attorneys. Larger firms (those with at least 250 lawyers) are more likely than smaller firms to use these staffing strategies. Indeed, about three quarters of those larger firms use contract lawyers (77.0%), part-time lawyers (71.3%) or staff attorneys (78.2%). The numbers, however, are still significant at firms with 50-249 lawyers–especially for contract lawyers. More than half (50.4%) of the mid-sized firms use those lawyers.

Law firms have adopted these strategies because they increase profitability. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed leaders indicated that “shifting work to contract/temporary lawyers” has resulted in a “significant improvement” in that metric. Almost half (49.5%) thought that “shifting work from lawyers to paraprofessionals” had the same salutary effect.

Law firms have also started to push the next frontier in staffing client matters: by using artificial intelligence (like IBM’s Watson) for some analyses. More than a third of law firms (36.3%) have started using those tools or “have begun to explore” those opportunities.

These results are not surprising to anyone who has followed law firm trends since the Great Recession. They underline, however, firms’ enthusiasm for these new staffing models.

H/t to TaxProf for noting the availability of Altman Weil’s report.

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Reflections of a Bar Exam Skeptic

May 26th, 2017 / By

Robert Anderson has posted a thoughtful comment on the bar exam in which he dubs me a “bar exam skeptic.” I accept the label with pride: I have been deeply skeptical of the bar exam for years. I first wrote about the exam in 2001, when the national pass rate for first-time takers was a relatively high 77% (see p. 23). My skepticism today, with a national pass rate of 69%, is no greater or smaller. As I wrote recently, it’s time to convene a National Task Force to examine our bar admissions process.

Who Cares About the Bar Exam?

As Professor Anderson rightly observes, decanal concerns about the bar exam have risen as pass rates have fallen. That’s human nature. The content and scoring of the bar exam are boring subjects for alumni gatherings, graduation speeches, or law review submissions. Few legal educators spontaneously write about setting cut scores, scaling essay questions, or equating test scores over time. The bar exam is like plumbing: most people take it for granted until something goes wrong.

But now the bar exam pipes are leaking and people are paying attention. The leak doesn’t mean we should patch things up just to revive pass rates; the bar exam should measure competence, not admit a predetermined number of lawyers. But now that people are paying attention, this is a good time to consider whether we’re using the right type of filter and piping in our rather antiquated system.

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What Do Students Do in Clinics?

May 17th, 2017 / By

Douglas Kahn has posted an article criticizing the “proliferation of clinical and other experiential courses” in legal education. These courses, he argues, reduce the number of “doctrinal” courses that students take, leaving them “ill-prepared to practice law as soon after graduation as law firms would like.” The TaxProf Blog posted a summary of the article, and a baker’s dozen of readers have offered pro and con comments.

It’s an old debate, one that has bristled for more than 50 years. The discussion doesn’t surprise me, but Professor Kahn’s ignorance of clinical education does. His bold assertions about clinics reveal little familiarity with the actual operation of those courses. Let’s examine some of Kahn’s claims.

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2016 Employment Outcomes

May 11th, 2017 / By

The ABA has posted its report on employment outcomes for the Class of 2016, along with two school-by-school spreadsheets. One of the spreadsheets tracks law school funded jobs that require bar passage; the other details other employment outcomes. My initial take-aways are:

  • Nationwide, the size of the graduating class fell 7.15%.
  • That decline allowed schools to register a slight increase in the percentage of graduates employed in the key category of full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission. That percentage rose from 59.2% to 61.8%.
  • The number of graduates employed in those job categories, however, fell from 23,687 for the Class of 2015 to 22,930 for the Class of 2016. That decline (3.1%) continues a trend noted last year, although the decline is smaller this year.
  • The number of students taking part-time JD Advantage jobs rose markedly–by 16.3% in the long-term category and 72.8% in the short-term one. The overall numbers are small compared to other job categories, but the jumps are noticeable.
  • The percentage of graduates known to be unemployed and seeking jobs declined from 9.7% to 8.8%. Those figures, however, must be read in connection with an increase in the percentage of graduates for whom employment status was unknown. If we assume that just a third of the latter graduates were unemployed and seeking work (a conservative estimate), then 10.04% of the Class of 2016 was still unemployed and seeking work ten months after graduation.

Overall, the report suggests continued weakness in the entry-level job market for law graduates. The decline in the absolute number of graduates holding full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission is worrisome–especially since we take that measure a full 10 months after graduation. Even more troubling is the fact that 10% of the nation’s law graduates are unemployed and seeking work a full ten months after graduation.

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Clinics and Costs

May 6th, 2017 / By

Bob Kuehn has written an incisive article about the relationship between law school tuition and clinical education. Contrary to many educators’ assumptions, Bob finds that there is no statistically significant relationship between the tuition charged by schools that require a clinical experience and schools that do not. Requiring students to complete a clinic before graduation, in other words, does not correspond with increased tuition.

Similarly, schools that guarantee students a clinical experience–should they choose to take one–do not charge significantly higher tuition than schools without that guarantee. Accounting for tuition discounts did not change these results: Schools with clinical requirements or guarantees did not acquire significantly more tuition revenue per student than those without those requirements or guarantees.

The same story emerged when Bob analyzed clinical course availability (rather than requirements or guarantees). Enhanced clinical opportunities never correlated significantly with higher tuition (either list price or discounted). On the contrary, several analyses found a significant relationship between clinical opportunities and lower tuition rates. Bob summarizes the results of his research in a post on the Best Practices for Legal Education blog.

How could this be? Aren’t clinics incredibly expensive to run? Well, yes and no. As Bob explains, the availability of clinical education depends more on the choices that law schools make than on the direct cost of clinics.

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Our Broken Bar Exam

May 4th, 2017 / By

The bar exam is broken: it tests too much and too little. On the one hand, the exam forces applicants to memorize hundreds of black-letter rules that they will never use in practice. On the other hand, the exam licenses lawyers who don’t know how to interview a client, compose an engagement letter, or negotiate with an adversary.

This flawed exam puts clients at risk. It also subjects applicants to an expensive, stressful process that does little to improve their professional competence. The mismatch between the exam and practice, finally, raises troubling questions about the exam’s disproportionate racial impact. How can we defend a racial disparity if our exam does not properly track the knowledge, skills, and judgment that new lawyers use in practice?

We can’t. In the language of psychometricians, our bar exam lacks “validity.” We haven’t shown that the exam measures the quality (minimal competence to practice law) that we want to measure. On the contrary, growing evidence suggests that our exam is invalid: the knowledge and skills tested by the exam vary too greatly from the ones clients require from their lawyers.

We cannot ignore the bar exam’s invalidity any longer. Every legal educator should care about this issue, no matter how many of her students pass or fail the exam. The bar exam defines the baseline of our profession. If the exam tests the wrong things, we have a professional obligation to change it.

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For the rest of this essay, please see aalsnews. I discuss the concept of exam validity, our lack of agreement on “minimal competence,” and how educators and practitioners could work together to solve these serious problems.

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About Law School Cafe

Cafe Manager & Co-Moderator
Deborah J. Merritt

Cafe Designer & Co-Moderator
Kyle McEntee

ABA Journal Blawg 100 HonoreeLaw School Cafe is a resource for anyone interested in changes in legal education and the legal profession.

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