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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 43 (Dan Rodriguez)

Collaboration among Stakeholder Associations: Why and How

Legal education reform is, as has been pointed out by several contributors to this symposium, a team effort.  There is the imperative of collaboration among faculty and staff within the law school, collaboration within a university for those law schools who are part of what is typically a diffuse institution with myriad pressures and multiple strategies, and collaboration with folks in the profession. 

What I want to reflect upon briefly is collaborations, fruitful and occasionally freighted, with associations who work with and on behalf of law schools to foster common ambitions.  An incomplete list of key stakeholder groups includes:

  • ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
  • The ABA writ large (often called  the “big ABA”
  • Association of American Law Schools
  • The Law School Admission Council
  • Nat’l Conference of State Bar Examiners
  • Nat’l Ass’n of Law Placement
  • Access-Lex Institute (formerly the Access Group)

Taken as a whole, these groups impact an enormously wide swath of legal education issues.  To be sure, the ABA Section on Legal Ed (“The Section”) controls accreditation and, therefore, is rightly listed at the top of this list.  But it is crucial to see, as law schools do, that many dimensions of influence are reflected in the work of other important stakeholder groups.

The challenge for leaders of these organizations is perhaps an existential one: How do best protect the interests and strategies of group members and affiliates while working collaboratively with law deans, faculty members, and other administrators to improve legal education.  But the more ordinary, which is not to say prosaic, challenge is how to navigate and negotiate matters where law schools might have different objectives – and, indeed, where they may have competing objectives.  Who guards these guardians, if not the law schools themselves?

Consider the ubiquitous demands faced by the Section.  In essence, they set the minimum bar for competence in legal education.  But can they and ought they to do more than that in the face of complex challenges to their members? To a greater or lesser degree over the years, they have assisted law schools (think of the various conferences they put on, for new deans, for development officers, etc).   However, current fiscal conditions within the ABA make this forms of assistance more remote.  And the relationship among law schools and the Section has been historically combative, this notwithstanding the fact that the brutal thread of disaccreditation is tiny to the point of being trivial for all but a sliver of legal academia.  Collaboration with the Section remains a puzzle, even though the fundamental structure of accreditation, with rules and objectives, standards and interpretation, cry out for a more synthetic set of relationships among Section leadership and managers within law schools.

Or what about the AALS?  This is formally an organization of law schools, and there exist structures of participation and support with and for law school members.  (A relatively new Deans Steering Committee, which I chaired for two years recently, is the latest instantiation of this support strategy).  However, the glue that binds the AALS together, and enables it to thrive in some form on behalf of the better versions of legal education, is the volunteer work of dozens of law professors and, as well, the participation of those law professors in a large, omnibus annual meeting held in January.  What is critically important, but to me rather under-theorized, is how exactly AALS can be mobilized as an organization to foster serious reform in a sustained way.  Reformism should be embedded into the structure and philosophy of the association.  But, regrettably, such reformism typically takes a back seat to both membership review and assistance and support to law schools and law professors.

The core values of the association, admirable and deftly configured, exist at a fairly high level of generality. In the trenches, however, are the truly tough questions:  What should be the basic economic model of contemporary American law schools? What diversity should be permitted (celebrated?) with regard to the component parts of the teaching faculty? How should external organizations assist the professiorate in advancing impact through legal scholarship and public service? These are hardly new questions, but the challenge for AALS as a stakeholder group is essentially how best to collaborate with member schools – not how to manage them, but how to collaborate with them and learn from them.  Functioning successfully as an association of law schools demands nothing less.

Some crucial issues are emerging in the work of stakeholder associations.  One of the more unfortunate, and even pernicious, spectacles we are witnessing right now is the full-court-press which LSAC is undertaking in order to save the LSAT, its breadwinner, from competition by a competing admissions test, the Graduate Record Exam.  As I write this post, the LSAC is engaged in a scorched earth strategy to beat down a proposed change in the accreditation standards, a change which would take away any requirement of one particular admissions test as a condition to admission to an ABA-accredited law school.  (You needn't take my word for this.  You can log onto the Section's page which collects comments on the proposed rule for more details).  Although one would imagine that the audience for LSAC’s ire and irritation regarding the GRE would be the law schools themselves, and it is in that arena that LSAC should make its case on behalf of the unique, intrinsic value of the LSAT, instead the LSAC’s strategy is to insist on a one-size-fits-all rule and, furthermore, to insist that those who disagree do not have the best interests of law students and, in particular, to diverse students.  This appeal builds on the manipulative argument that it is to the LSAC that law schools must look for assistance with their diversity objectives and that, in the absence of a heavy-handed rule, the LSAC will be forced to bring up their drawbridge and let law schools fend for themselves.

That’s the issue d’jour.  But the heart of the matter, and the point of this part of my post, is that highly-charged political battles such as this one emerge only when there has been a breakdown of sorts with regard to collaboration.  When stakeholder associations are viewed as impediments to law schools’ well-being, hindrances and nagging busybodies, then the prospect of meaningful cooperation evaporates.  It should be clear by now that these stakeholder associations are critical not only for the work they do to assist law schools with their good work (I haven’t mentioned AccessLex in this post, but let me do so now – their financial support of empirical research on legal education is very welcome indeed), but also for their power and influence in staving off threats to legal education from external organizations, be they the big university, state legislatures, Congress, or the White House.

Having commented on the “why” issue, just a few words on the “how.”  Stakeholder associations should get together on a regular basis with American law schools.  This is a unwieldy group to be sure, so perhaps such face-to-face meetings should be held with the Deans Steering Committee.  There should be, as well, regular communication both among these associations (I expect that some of this goes on already) and with law schools.  Each of these groups has a leadership structure and there are typically law deans and occasionally other administrators who are involved.  However, in my long experience as a dean, law teacher, and volunteer member of a number of these groups (especially the AALS), I can report that the communication between association leadership and members can stand to be improved.  In addition to this regular flow of communication, there should be sincere and serious attention to collaborative strategies.  I do believe that the LSAC would not have found itself in this combative stance with regard to the Section and to many member law schools if they were functioning in accord with a wider, more deliberate strategy.  And kudos to its new leader, Kellye Testy, for embarking on a major strategic planning initiative, an initiative which we can expect will bear fruit in just this way.  The Section, the AALS, and other groups listed above should engage in comprehensive strategic planning more methodically and more transparently.  In doing so, they will benefit from the wisdom of legal educators and law deans and will also forge greater collaboration.  There is no time in the history of modern legal education where such collaboration has been more needed.

Dan Rodriguez (Northwestern)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 31, 2018 at 01:14 PM | Permalink


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