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Illinois Lawyers Issue Report Calling for Law School Reform

Calling for nothing short of near-total law school reform, the Illinois State Bar Association, under the leadership of its president, John E. Thies, of Urbana, 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.

ISBA members, Illinois Appellate Court justice Ann B. Jorgensen of Wheaton and attorney Dennis J. Orsey of Granite City, were the architects of the report, which emphasizes that the current system of educating law students is unsustainable. One reason, they say, is that the debt burden for new lawyers, which, combined with the difficult job market, has had 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 Jorgensen and Orsey. 

The Special 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 Special 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 Special 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.

  • 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 targeted to 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 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.

Thies said there will be a strong role for the organized bar in helping ensure change that 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.

NOTE: The full “Report and Recommendations of the Illinois State Bar Association Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Debt on the Delivery of Legal Services” is available here.

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