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From the President

Admissions task force kicks off  its work

By Jon Streeter
President, State Bar of California

Jon StreeterThe Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform is now up and running. I appointed this 21-member advisory group in April 2012 to review three issues: (1) whether we should add a practical experience training requirement to the criteria for Bar membership in California, (2) whether we have adequate rules governing the disclosure practices of California accredited law schools for the employment success rates of their graduates, and (3) whether graduates of unaccredited law schools ought to continue to be eligible for membership in the bar.

The membership of the task force consists of judges, legal academics, and lawyers from a broad cross-section of the profession, and non-lawyer members of the public. Our first meeting took place in early June, and we will be meeting regularly for the next 18 months.

The task force work plan extends for an 18-month period and is divided into two phases, with the first phase devoted to the issue of practical experience training and the second phase devoted to law school transparency and unaccredited law schools issues. More information on the task force membership, the exact meeting schedule, and the meeting agendas, may be found on the bar’s website.

The need for improved practical skills training of new lawyers has never been more pressing than it is now. More and more new lawyers are coming out of law school, encountering difficulty in the job market, loaded with law school debt, with no choice but to open a law practice on their own. And these days, in the age of the internet, opening a law practice is easier than ever.

It is true that over the last two decades law schools have done a very good job of making clinical practice courses available in law school, but it is time that we stop putting sole responsibility on law schools for ensuring that new lawyers enter the profession ready to practice. Some form of practical skills training requirement – whether in the form of mentoring programs, CLE-type programs specifically geared to new lawyers, or apprenticeship programs – has been adopted in 32 states. Given the acute need, the task force will be considering whether we may wish to adopt such a program in California.

Law school transparency until now has mostly been a subject of debate among American Bar Association accredited law schools. The issue here, of course, has to do with allegations that certain law schools have played fast and loose with the data they publish concerning the employment success rates of their graduates. Some critics have claimed that it has become commonplace for law schools to inflate the percentage of graduates who find good jobs in the legal profession, thus enticing prospective student to attend their schools and incur massive amounts of debt based on unrealistic expectations of employability.

Within the last year, the ABA has undertaken a review of the adequacy of its rules on post-graduation employment data disclosure. The State Bar of California has no regulatory oversight of the 21 ABA-accredited law schools in California, but we do oversee the 18 California-accredited law schools. Following the lead of the ABA – but not necessarily the same approach – the task force will be reviewing our rules on post-graduation data disclosure among California-accredited law schools.

The unaccredited law schools issue has been a persistent concern among members of the State Bar Board of Trustees and the Committee of Bar Examiners for some time. The issue here bears some resemblance to law school transparency, but comes up in different context. Bar passage rates for the graduates of these schools has been so low for so long – in the low single digits –that some critics have questioned whether these schools are taking significant sums of money from students who never, realistically, will be able to pass the bar examination, much less find employment in the profession.

Now, to be sure, the availability of a route into the profession through these schools – a unique feature of our Bar, which exists in only one other state – has its advantages. It offers legal education to working people and other segments of the population who might not otherwise have access to law schools, at dramatically lower cost than accredited schools.  

The advantage of not making graduation from an accredited law school a requirement for bar membership simply underscores the fact that, on this issue, as on the issues of practical skills training and law school transparency, the task force will have some close and difficult policy judgments to make.

With each meeting, the progress of our work on the task force will be posted on the bar’s website. I invite you to follow what we are doing, and if you have a particular interest in any of these issues, to attend one of our meetings and address the task force in the public comment period.