The AALS doesn’t want to hear about the future of law teaching

Larry Ribstein —  21 December 2011

The AALS each year selects a few “hot topics” program proposals for discussion of “late-breaking” subjects at the January meeting.  This year I agreed to be included in a hot topics panel described as follows:

Law schools have long kept a comfortable distance from the concerns of the practicing bar. Earlier calls for reform such as the MacCrate Report (1992), the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Practice of Law (2007), and Stuckey et al, Best Practices for Legal Education (2007), have led to a greater emphasis on more practical training, at least in law school admissions brochures if not always in the curriculum. Increasing competition for rankings has also changed the dynamics of reputation with respect to academic study and practical training at some law schools. Fundamentally, however, most schools have seen little change in the curriculum and overall approach to delivery of instruction since the last century. Despite this, students have continued to flock to law schools, and more law schools have sought and received accreditation. Recently, however, a series of high-profile news reports, blogs, lawsuits by recent graduates, ABA disciplinary actions against law schools, and calls from Congress for stricter regulation have brought increased public attention to fundamental questions about the delivery of legal education in the U.S. What was once dismissed as the unfounded complaints of a minority of embittered law students is approaching a full-blown scandal. Issues such as the ABA’s capture by the law schools it is meant to accredit and regulate, the skyrocketing cost of a legal education in the face of what some argue is a long-term restructuring in the legal market and a permanent downturn in employment, and law schools’ failure to disclose meaningful and accurate information regarding employment prospects, are converging into a widespread sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction with legal education.

While the perspectives and methods of the panelists vary, each has been a voice for reform within legal education. Some call for a strengthened regulatory hand; others call for deregulation of the legal profession or for voluntary collective action by law schools. All share a concern for the improvement of legal education and the profession. This panel will be an opportunity for a candid and highly interactive assessment of the situation and directions forward.

Does this discussion sound like the sort of late-breaking “hot topic” that ought to have been included in the AALS program?  I guess not, because it was rejected. 

Instead, the AALS chose programs on Occupy Wall Street, the Endangered Species Act, human rights in Russia, health care reform, the legacy of Derrick Bell, Supreme Court recusal, the ministerial employment discrimination exception, DOMA and alternatives to incarceration.

Why the rejection?  There are two hypotheses: the AALS didn’t think its members would regard the future of legal education to be as important and current a topic as those just listed; or the AALS as an organization didn’t want to be the forum for such a panel.

Either way, the rejection seems disturbing for law teaching (not for me — I can find other things to do).

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

6 responses to The AALS doesn’t want to hear about the future of law teaching

    Daria Roithmayr 25 December 2011 at 2:13 pm

    I really like that this post sits, three days before his death, as a wonderful testament to all things Larry. The deep intellectual and institutional investment in the future of legal education. The energy to actually propose a panel on the subject. The pointy acerbic critique of AALS’s decision not to accept the panel. Larry and I were colleagues for four years at Illinois. As much as we disagreed on…well, you name it, we disagreed on it…my favorite memory is Larry’s invitation for me to do a panel on Law and the Movies. I think I did My Cousin Vinny. Maybe it was Inherit the Wind. I don’t remember anymore. But I remember thinking–“at last, something Larry and I can agree on” and “how wonderful it is that Larry invited me to do this despite our traveling in parallel universes.”

    Richard W. Rainter 24 December 2011 at 7:57 am

    Larry has raised very serious issues about our profession and we ignore his warnings at our peril. He was a wonderful colleague at Illinois and he knew a great deal about the business of legal education. His words of wisdom in this debate and many other debates will be missed.


    Let me suggest a third, more charitable, hypothesis for why AALS rejected the hot topic proposal: the proposal seemed redundant of the AALS’s already scheduled all-day workshop on the Future of the Legal Profession and Legal Education. The workshop, entitled “Changes in Law Practice: Implications for Legal Education,” will be held at the annual meeting, 8:45 AM to 5:00 PM on Thursday, January 5. That’s my guess.


    “Instead, the AALS chose programs on … the legacy of Derrick Bell … ”

    I don’t understand, they didn’t even spell his name right. He was a decent ball player, but not that memorable:

    Derek Bell a/k/a Derek Nathaniel Bell
    Position: Outfielder
    Bats: Right, Throws: Right
    Height: 6′ 2″, Weight: 200 lb.
    Born: December 11, 1968 in Tampa, FL (Age 43)
    High School: King (Tampa, FL)
    Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2nd round of the 1987 amateur draft.
    Signed June 11, 1987. (All Transactions)
    Debut: June 28, 1991
    Teams (by GP): Astros/Padres/Mets/BlueJays/Pirates 1991-2001
    Final Game: July 3, 2001

    11 Seasons 1210 Games 134 HR 668 RBI .276 BA

    Robert D'Agostino 21 December 2011 at 8:31 am

    Par for the course. The accreditation process is run for the benefit of those who controlit-faculty from second and third tier law schools. Prof. Shepard from Emory Law School has written about the cartel like behavior of those in charge. The AALS puts an emphasis on what they regard as “scholarship. Writing never read law review articles for never read law reviews is a lot easier than actually interacting with students, hence, being a scholar is considered more important that being a teacher.


    The question remains: Is there any rational basis for the outrageous cost of law school tuition? Not by any measure. Is there any rational basis for the inexplicable requirements of the ABA? Not one.

    At the end of the day, the ABA will lose its exclusive franchise to accredit law schools, just as it has been losing its franchise to be the masters of the guild for those who are entitled to deliver legal services.

    There are currently billions of dollars in defaulted law school tuition loans, much of it guaranteed by the federal government. At the same time, the number of law school graduates obtaining meaningful employment continues to plummet, while law schools continue to raise tuition and increase the number of seats for law students. Even as the number of jobs for recent law school graduates continue to plummet, starting salaries for lawyers are also on the decline to the point that recent graduates cannot afford to amortize their student loans and provide themselves with food, clothes and shelter.

    In a classic game of passing the buck, the law schools blame the ABA for imposing costly requirements, law school professors disclaim any responsibility, claiming that to attribute blame to them is akin to blaming the proliferation of roaches because of the ban on DDT is akin to blaming the roaches, as Professor Larry Ribstein suggests elsewhere. They also claim that the high cost of legal education is due to outmoded guild rules and that law firms need to justify high hourly rates to pay for recent graduates. Law firms blame the schools because new associates need to earn enough to pay for their student loans. Law firm clients are saying “whoa, this is none of our business; we’re not paying for training first and second year associates.”

    This whole Alphone and Gaston thing is slowly crumbling, while nobody seems to be paying attention, as unregulated providers of legal services, not having even attended law schools or having been admitted to any bar, are gaining significant market share.

    The entire existing eco structure is simply crumbling before our very eyes.

    In the end, I am seeing both some real merit in the notion of deregulating the profession and, in point of fact, the market is now creating this deregulation, as I describe in times-on-the-price-of-law-school-tuition/