The Illinois State Bar Association has released a 53-page report, supported with research and testimony from statewide hearings, that calls for dramatic changes in the way law schools deliver education.
"The current system of educating law students is unsustainable," says ISBA President John E. Thies, of Urbana, Ill. "The debt burden of new attorneys, combined with the difficult job market, is having a detrimental effect on the public's ability to access quality legal services."
In June 2012, Thies appointed a special committee on the impact of law school debt on the delivery of legal services, co-chaired by Illinois Appellate Court justice Ann B. Jorgensen, of Wheaton, and attorney Dennis J. Orsey, of Granite City. Their report and recommendations were accepted on March 8 at a meeting of the ISBA Board of Governors in Urbana, and the board recommended that the ISBA's policy-making assembly approve the report at its next meeting in June.
The committee conducted a series of five hearings around the state, receiving testimony from private attorneys, government attorneys, public defenders, legal-aid lawyers, law students, judges, law professors, and law school deans.
Testimony centered on their "front line" experiences with the burden of school debt as new graduates begin their practices. Based on the testimony and other research, the committee concluded that the law school debt crisis is seriously and negatively impacting the quality and availability of legal services that the legal profession provides in Illinois.
According to the report, "The average student graduates from law school today with over $100,000 of law school debt. After adding accrued interest, undergraduate debt, and bar study loans, the debt burden of new attorneys frequently increases to $150,000 to $200,000, levels of debt that impose a crushing burden on new lawyers."
The committee made a series of recommendations to mitigate the law school debt crisis and transform legal education to focus on educating lawyers at an affordable price. The recommendations included the following:
Congress and the Department of Education should place reasonable limits on the amount that law students can borrow from the federal government.
Rather than allowing all accredited law schools to enroll students receiving federal student loans, Congress should restrict federal loan eligibility to schools whose graduates meet certain employment and debt-repayment outcomes.
The federal government should ensure that funds available in these programs are for students most in need.
Law schools must have the ability to experiment with new models of legal education to find the best ways to control costs while still delivering a quality education.
Law schools themselves must transform their curricula to include more emphasis on practice-oriented courses, with greater focus during the second and third years of school on helping students transition to practice through apprenticeships, practical courses, and teaching assistantships, rather than the more traditional doctrinal courses. Needed reforms also include changes to law school faculty.
"There will be a strong role for the organized bar in helping ensure change," Thies says. "These include facilitating apprenticeships, pro bono projects, facilitating the sale of rural law practices to young lawyers, and providing debt counseling and resources for lawyers and prospective law students."
The 32,000-member ISBA, with offices in Springfield and Chicago, provides professional services to Illinois lawyers, and education and services to the public.
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