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Eminent Legal Scholar Hits ABA Approach to Learning

Message Sherwood Ross
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A prominent legal authority has called publicly upon the nation's law schools to shift their teaching approach from the 'academic' or  research model most now use to one designed to train "good lawyers," citing the example of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover.
"Most law schools now follow the elite model, striving to hire faculty and produce scholarship like research universities, when it might better serve the interests of many non-elite law schools and their students to concentrate on training good lawyers," wrote Brian Tamanaha, the Chief Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo Professor of Law at St. John's University and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for academic year 2007-8.
"Money now allocated to scholarship and research leaves would instead go to clinics and other practice training; professors would teach 15 hours or more a week; faculty would be hired for the desire and ability to train lawyers, not for scholarship; more law schools would look like Massachusetts School of Law (which the ABA has mightily resisted). Schools built around this alternative model would produce capable lawyers at a much lower tuition, which would be good for the students and good for society," wrote Tamanaha, a columnist for the popular legal blog "Balkinization" on Jan. 22nd, 2008.
Tamanaha pointed out since the mid-1990s, the American Bar Assn.(ABA)  has sponsored two initiatives "seemingly at odds: the accreditation process was being used to free up professors for more writing, while law schools  were being criticized for spending too much time on academic work and not  enough time teaching law students to become skilled lawyers."
Indeed, he continued, "it is an insult within legal academia to be branded as a school that 'teaches for the bar'---notwithstanding that the daunting threshold hurdle every law student faces coming out of law school is to pass the damn bar exam."
Tamanaha explained, "Law schools were inhibited from developing an alternative model, one which emphasizes producing well trained lawyers. Rather than taking pride in and building an identity around that --- 'We teach students to pass the bar and to be capable lawyers on the very First day out the door'---law schools had to claim to be something more than(or other than) a place dedicated to educating lawyers for practice."
The legal authority pointed out in his column in "Balkinization" that the ABA had used the accreditation process "to promote and force a single ‘academic' or research model on all law schools. All law schools were told to reduce teaching loads (from the earlier highs of 15 to 18 hours a week) in order to free up writing, and schools were evaluated for their academic output. This sent a strong message to law schools about what matters (not teaching!),which was exacerbated by the 'academic reputation rating'category  utilized by US News."
Tamanaha noted that the ABA entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department which brought suit in 1995 "promising to cease such practices" as utilizing the accreditation process (of law schools) to engage in anti-competitive practices aimed at boosting their (professors') pay  and reducing their teaching loads (among other things)." Tamanaha's column is titled, "What's Wrong With This Picture of Legal Academia?"
Tamanaha called for a new direction in legal education at a time when some prominent law schools charging in excess of $40,000 a year for tuition, are spending more time on teaching theory rather than preparing students for everyday legal practice.
The Justice Department suit against ABA over fixing law professors' salaries to which he referred was inspired by a law suit brought against ABA by the Massachusetts School of Law.
Founded in 1988, MSL, whose tuition of $13,300 a year is less than half that of other   New England law schools, is purposefully dedicated to educating minorities, immigrants, and students from low- and middle-income backgrounds that could not otherwise afford to attend law school. The school does not require applicants to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) required at ABA-accredited schools but bases admission on students' academic records, work records, and determination to succeed.
Lawrence Velvel, cofounder and dean of MSL has been honored by the National Law Journal for his efforts and the National Jurist magazine has described him as one of the leaders in legal education reform today. And The Wall Street Journal has dubbed MSL "The Little Law School That Could."
Asked for comment about the Tamanaha column, Dean Velvel said:  "I frankly was  surprised.  I guess our school's reputation has spread far more than I knew and that what the school is seeking to accomplish has likewise become more widely known than I realized."
(Disclosure: Sherwood Ross is a media consultant to the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. Reach him at
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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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