Law Schools Resist Proposal to Assess Them Based on What Students Learn

January 10, 2010

Law schools would be required to identify key skills and competencies and develop ways to test how well their graduates are learning them under controversial revisions to accreditation standards being proposed by the American Bar Association.

The proposed revisions, which are being drafted by a committee of the association's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, were a topic of heated debate here throughout the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, which ended Sunday.

Instead of judging law schools primarily on "input" measures, such as faculty size and library holdings, the proposed revisions would look more at "outcome" measures, such as what students are actually learning.

Several law deans said they have enough to worry about with budget cuts, a tough job market for their graduates, and the soaring cost of legal education without adding a potentially expensive assessment overhaul.

"Given the fragility of the legal profession and the fragility of law-school finances, it's a tough time to think about taking on a major process of assessment," Lauren K. Robel, dean of Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, said during an interview here.

But supporters of the proposed revisions said law schools can no longer afford to churn out graduates who lack the skills employers want, especially when jobs are so hard to come by.

The blog Law Shucks reported last week that 12,196 people were laid off at 138 large law firms in 2009, the worst year ever for such layoffs. The job cuts included 4,633 lawyers and 7,563 staff workers.

Timing Questioned

"It's still unclear how all of the upheaval in the law-firm market will affect legal education," said Maureen A. O'Rourke, dean of the Boston University School of Law. While she supports a discussion of assessment based on student-learning outcomes, she believes it would be a mistake to make changes at a time when the legal landscape is in such flux, or to require law schools to enact costly reforms now. Law schools would probably have to hire additional staff members to collect data and develop testing metrics, and some curriculum changes could be expensive.

The proposed standards, which are still being developed, call on law schools to define learning outcomes that are consistent with their missions and to offer curricula that will achieve those outcomes. Different versions being considered offer varying degrees of specificity about what those skills should include.

Law schools would also be required to come up with a system to assess how well students are meeting those goals.

Some law deans question whether the kinds of skills that make a good lawyer can be measured through traditional assessment techniques.

"It is worth pausing to ask how the proponents of outcome measures can be so very confident that the actual performance of tasks deemed essential for the practice of law can be identified, measured, and evaluated," said Robert C. Post, dean of Yale Law School.

Despite the committee's assurances that law schools would be free to decide for themselves how to identify and assess desirable outcomes, Mr. Post said he remains concerned that the standards "will tend toward the imposition of uniformity and rigidity" in law-school curricula.

"At a minimum, the standards will require each law school to articulate a mission that can be assessed according to the science of measurable assessment," he said.

Calming Fears

Some deans worried that diversity efforts could suffer if law schools use measures like bar-examination passage rates to assess how much their graduates are learning. Members of underrepresented minority groups tend to have lower first-time bar-passage rates than do white graduates.

ABA administrators sought to assuage such concerns during a packed meeting on Friday with law-school officials here.

They said they will continue to work closely with law deans in drafting standards that will accommodate different law-school missions and avoid significant costs.

Among those who support the effort is James G. Leipold, executive director of NALP: the Association for Legal Career Professionals. He said hiring partners at law firms regularly complain to him that they have to spend too much time training new associates in skills they haven't learned in law school. But he added that there is a natural tension between legal educators who favor a more theoretical-based legal education and those who are increasingly pushing for a more skills-based curriculum.

NALP, which was previously known as the National Association for Law Placement, held a round-table discussion last month

in which Phillip A. Bradley, senior vice president and general counsel for Duane Reade, a large drugstore chain, likened law schools to car companies that are "manufacturing something that nobody wants."

Mr. Bradley said many law firms are developing core competencies they expect of their lawyers, but many law schools aren't delivering graduates who come close to meeting them.

"Some law schools are of the view that delivering law graduates who have been trained 'to think like a lawyer' is sufficient. It is then the law firm's responsibility to train the law graduate to 'be a lawyer,'" Mr. Bradley said in an e-mail message to The Chronicle.

In this market, clients are less willing to pay law firms the high prices they charge, in part to cover the firms' staff training costs, he wrote. He said appropriately designed outcomes testing could help firms identify graduates who are ready to hit the ground running.