Universities, bar exam authorities, and law firms should unite to make alternative path to a law degree more viable, says William & Mary Law School Dean
US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch recently asked if a law degree should require seven years of college and mountains of debt. In a guest article on Bloomberg Law, A. Benjamin Spencer, dean of the William & Mary Law School, offered suggestions for removing obstacles to legal education.
While the education provided by traditional law schools offers a solid basis for a career as a legal counselor and advocate, as well as exceptional transferable skills and a path to licensure, Spencer believes that it is not the exclusive or necessarily the best route to becoming a lawyer. According to Spencer, in many countries, the undergraduate programs at universities and the practicing bar work together to provide legal education.
“For example, in England, qualifying as a solicitor is possible through three years of undergraduate study — the academic phase of legal training — followed by two years of qualifying legal work experience — the vocational phase of legal training — with passage of a qualifying examination required between the two phases and at the end,” said Spencer.
Spencer said that several US jurisdictions have a similar approach that enables college graduates to take an apprenticeship program to prepare for the bar exam instead of going to law school. But according to Spencer, such programs attract only a handful of applicants, which means these programs do not truly serve as a major pipeline for practicing lawyers.
Spencer said that the reasons for the low turnout are restrictions on the number of apprentices whom attorneys can supervise.
“For example, Virginia’s limit is one apprentice per supervising attorney. Other factors include the length of the apprenticeship—three or four years in the states permitting apprenticeships—and the paucity of practitioners capable of guiding apprentices through the numerous subjects in the program all contribute to the small uptake,” said Spencer. “This latter point may be the most salient: American legal apprenticeships combine the academic and vocational components of legal education into a single experience, one that very few practicing attorneys are positioned to deliver.”
To make this alternate path more viable, Spencer said that universities, state bar examination authorities, and law firms should work together.
“If universities were to offer undergraduate majors in law—as does the University of Arizona—and bar examination authorities were to accept some or much of that education as credit toward the course requirements for the apprenticeship program, it might be possible to reduce the academic component of American legal apprenticeships,” Spencer said. “Gorsuch’s musings raise the need for actual reform that will create a viable, alternate path to the practice of law that is more affordable. For this to happen, bar examination authorities, legal education leaders, and members of the practicing bar must come together to discuss these alternative paths that can deliver solid legal training without plunging legal aspirants into punishing debt.”
Full story here.