Podcast: Accessing Better Legal Education
We talk a lot about the future of the legal practice on the Filevine Fireside. But one thing we maybe forget is that the future of Law really belongs to future lawyers. We should be asking: who will the next generation of lawyers be? What challenges will they face? And how will they get through them?
Our guest today has some insight. Christopher Chapman is the President and CEO of the non-profit AccessLex, and AccessLex is in the business of improving law schools – and the well-being of students who attend them.
Learn more about AccessLex on their website.
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Join us as we sit down with the country’s best attorneys to talk about their processes and practices, as well as their outlook on the always-changing legal landscape. You can browse episodes on our blog, or find us on your favorite podcast directory. New episodes every month!
Katie: Talk to any three lawyers about how law school can be improved and you’ll get four different opinions. But today we’re talking to an expert. Welcome to the Filevine Fireside. I’m Katie Wolf.
We talk a lot about the future of the legal practice on the Filevine Fireside. One thing we maybe forget is that the future of law really belongs to future lawyers. We should be asking who will the next generation of lawyers be, what challenges will they face and how will they get through them.
Our guest today has some insight. Christopher Chapman is the president and CEO of the nonprofit AccessLex. AccessLex is in the business of improving law schools and the well being of students who attend them.
We’re so glad you could join us today, Chris.
Chris: Thank you for having me.
Katie: Could you tell us about what AccessLex is and what your mission is there?
Chris: AccessLex is essentially, we’re an 800 million dollar non profit organization and we work to improve access to legal education, as well as affordability and value. And we do this in a number of ways, but primarily through research policy, advocacy programs and direct services to law students and law schools. In a sense, as our tagline says — we empower the next generation of lawyers. We’re a membership organization. And so our memberships are comprised the nonprofit and state affiliated American Bar Association approved US law schools.
Katie: So you are thick in all of these issues and questions that come up when people talk about legal education. What do you think are the most important issues right now with legal education and what are the biggest changes that you would like to see come to the institutions?
Chris: Well, the biggest issue with legal education, is really for it to be self aware and understand what its role is in preparing aspiring lawyers to make their selves to go from entering law school to being admitted to the bar and practicing law.
The key thing there, the keyword or a word that’s thrown around with respect to legal education these days is innovation. Innovation really to me is innovation to meet the students where they are in what they need. Now, when I use the word innovation, I’m often wary of the limits of that word and the various meanings people ascribe to it. In a sense, innovation can be a siren song for trying every new thing and seeing what sticks. But to me, innovation is really the result of hard work and it’s incremental. Many innovations fail and that’s OK. But legal education needs to remember that testing innovations, your testing on real people who have real consequences if they don’t work. So for me, with respect to innovation, I equate that with evolution.
So a good example are the online and hybrid programs that many, and in fact, most law schools are starting to embrace at a much larger level now. They’re not new, but it really is a big leap forward in the delivery of legal education, particularly with respect to a Juris Doctor degree. They have the potential to increase access to legal education by reducing residential requirements and ultimately reducing, potentially substantially, the cost of getting a JD and the risk of seeking legal education.
Katie: Typically you have to drop everything, move to a city where you are going to be studying law and make that your number one priority the entire time you’re there. That sort of program would be a huge change for a lot of law students.
Chris: It really would be, and it really is. These programs or early on and what we’ve seen is if they have attracted, they attracted those type of people with families who may have a spouse who can’t really pick up and leave, or people who need to stay in an area to care for an ailing relative, or who just really are comfortable with where they live and aren’t ready to pick up and relocate in order to go to law school.
We’re not sure where it will eventually go. We’re going to be active in watching them and studying them. But in a country where access to justice is limited everywhere and in many places it’s not even available to many, giving an opportunity to create lawyers where they live rather than where the law schools are is a great development in my mind.
Katie: Have you faced any push back? Or have these institutions that have created these hybrid or online programs, have they faced push back? Are there people who are worried that this is just too big of a change?
Chris: Well, I’m sure there are. People who are worried, too big of a change. The most important place for those concerns are raised at the American Bar Association, which accredit law schools.
So the standards for accreditation, for many years had strictly limited the amount of credit that can be provided for a JD in an online manner. But the ABA has really started to embrace expansion of this online delivery method, both through its standards — itself directly by expanding that number from 15 to 30, I believe, that can be online just within the standards, but also by creating these variances to schools like Syracuse and Dayton that have fully online online programs that they’re starting off in the next year.
Again, progress is being made, it’s being made incrementally, it’s being made slowly, but presuming things continue to go forward successfully we think those concerns will be allayed over time, which is a really great development, and important for legal education and in the community as a whole.
Katie: A lot of the work that you do is helping potential and current law students make sense of their finances. In case anyone’s listening who’s considering law school, what’s your biggest piece of advice that you have for them regarding how to make it financially sustainable?
Chris: Well, I think with anything you first have to consider what your expectations are on the back end. What you’re doing when you go to law school or you make any investment, which law school is certainly an investment, it’s an investment in yourself, you have to consider what the return on that investment’s going to be.
And for law school, what that means is considering the costs going in, and what you think being the JD will do to your earning potential, and not just your earning potential if you get a big job at one of the top 5% law firms where you make $180,000 a year coming out, but the practical learning potential of your own situation.
Katie: Your mission is to make sure that law students go into this process with their eyes open. But do you have any advice for any young lawyers who might be listening who didn’t have that kind of insight and support and are now just buried under a mountain of debt? Do you have any advice or hope for them?
Chris: Sure. My primary advice in that regard is that if you’re in debt for anything including law school, you need to be honest with yourself and make a claim. Ignoring it, blaming someone else or expecting something magical to happen won’t work. As with every reality, hope springs eternal, but it certainly isn’t a great strategy.
The good news also is, is that at least for for lawyers, we have a product and a service here called AccessConnex, where anybody who is a lawyer, anybody who’s a law student can call. We have people who answer the phone, will work on the chat, will do the email, who can help with doing ones specific questions, especially repayment questions or repayment options and actually understand how all of those things work in a very detailed manner. In addition, you have the ability to schedule a one on one, 30 minute counseling session, free of charge, with one of our accredited financial counselors to help walk you through a little bit more of the detail of your broader financial picture. So that’s one resource and there are obviously others. But once you have the debt you have to deal with it one way or the other because it won’t go away.
Katie: And once again, that’s AccessConnex, so if you’re buried under a mountain of debt, that’s a good place to start.
You also work to make law school accessible to historically underrepresented groups. Do you want to talk about what that looks like and why you do that work?
Chris: Our core reason we were founded was to foster accessibility for historically underrepresented groups, at the time when securing financing for such groups was very challenging. And this is in the early eighties when law schools really started admitting, many more people of color, many more people from socioeconomic disadvantaged background. And in fact, at that time, women were a seriously underrepresented group, which some of my younger colleagues have a hard time even imagining.
Yet nonetheless, that’s why we were founded. So we work on a number of fronts to support the goal.
The first is that we commissioned a basic research on understanding the barriers to these underrepresented groups, testing and determining an event interventions that can reduce the barriers and then ultimately work and try to seek acceptance of implementation of such interventions by the applicable stake holders. And you might ask, well, why do we do that? Hasn’t somebody done that yet? And the answer is, despite the fact that there’s been a strong belief and a strong principle at law school that we want to increase diversity in legal education, in some areas it’s really been relatively flat as far as increases go.
A good example is African Americans. It just, many efforts are much effort has been put forth to increase the number of African Americans in law school but it’s remained flat. Now, it is a complex issue, and you can say that, well, if the K through 12 sector’s fault, it’s congress not funding enough Head Starts so we’re doomed to failure. That’s a bit too nihilistic for us. So in any case, we’re going to learn what we can in an organized and data driven manner, to implement change. The alternative is to throw our hands up and go home. And so we’ll choose the former.
Katie: Do you have opinions about this new generation of lawyers that’s coming out? It’s more diverse than ever — people are talking about how millennial lawyers are going to change the game. Sometimes they say that with a lot of hope and sometimes they say that with some horror. Do you think that millennial lawyers are actually that different from previous generations?
Chris: I would say the answer is no, millennial lawyers aren’t that different. Lawyers are lawyers. I think millennial students are different than previous generations. And to that extent, potentially millennial lawyers are, but it’s really a difference in style and a difference in the way they learn and the way they consume information.
It’s very much a group that has grown up online and grown up with just-in-time information and the ability to have answers at their fingertips and with less of a need to memorize or cram or plan ahead. So I think that comes through in a number of ways in law school. And I think law schools are doing what they can to adjust to that. But I think one of the areas where it really shows up, where we’re really starting to see it showing up is on bar exams, which remains a test where cramming a whole lot of information in a short time and then putting it back out over a couple of days period is still the norm. So I think that that hurts millennials because they’re their educational journey to that point for the most part hasn’t required that kind of work.
Katie: You also do work shaping policy or trying to promote policy that is good for students and for young attorneys. Do you want to share a little bit with where your sites are on that right now? And if it’s a hard time to try to be lobbying for students?
Chris: Let me start with the second one first by saying, it’s always hard to influence policies in congress. And if we’re really honest, it’s hard even within the broad segment of postsecondary students niche groups such as law students and even other graduate and professional students don’t really represent a meaningful political constituency.
Imagine if you had to kind of rate the level of fear a congressperson would have if his or her aid came in and said — hey, a bunch of law students and lawyers are marching on Capitol Hill. I would say that the fear would be about between zero and 0.5.
And even within the universities, most university lobbyists would support an increase in say, graduate professional interest rates in exchange for larger Pell grants.
But I do go back to that the alternative is to give up and drift with the tide. And we of course choose the opposite. Because the power political power at the grassroots level we have — law schools can punch above their weight by making sure there’s a seat at the table in ensuring cogent intellectually honest arguments are heard by the policy makers. And that’s where we come in. It requires consistent and continuous effort over years. And we’re fortunate to have the resources and time horizon to do it.
As far as what we’re focused on, our primary focus is ensuring the federal government programs don’t unnecessarily limit access to legal education or make it more costly. The most recent congress, the public service loan forgiveness program has been a hot topic in some attempts to pull that back. But more broadly we’re focused on the higher education, Higher Education Act Reauthorization.
Katie: I want to ask you a question about technology. You’ve researched about how new technologies can benefit law students and young attorneys and make their lives easier. There’s also this worry I’ve seen that new technologies will replace a lot of the work that young attorneys do. You have things like artificial intelligence that can sift through e-discovery documents and do the work that used to be a bunch of brand new attorneys would do. Is this a trend that troubles people who work with new attorneys? Should law students be worried about this trend?
Chris: Technology has continually disrupted all fields, including the legal field for decades and decades. AI — some of these automated legal operations functions — they will disrupt it as well. Historically, as you said, young attorneys did this work. Young attorneys did this work and that will go away just the way just the way that digital recorders have really reduced the use of stenographers in the courtroom and that won’t stop.
So in a way, yes, it will take away some tasks that lawyers do, but it’ll also increase the value of the work that lawyers do do.
What I would also say is that this trend and this overtaking of technology, really is focused on again, the biggest firms, which employee about 10% of the lawyers that most in the country. The meeting and fall firms still don’t have full access to that technology at least now, but ultimately it will.
But what lawyers have and what they will always have are the analytical skills and the thinking skills to analyze and solve problems and deal with clients on a direct basis.
Katie: Some of your own research with AccessLex shows that perceptions about law school costs and values are increasingly negative, especially among recent law graduates. And we’ve also seen some law schools shutting down recently. Do you feel like this is a sign of a crisis?
Chris: I think “crisis” is too strong from a macro standpoint. Certainly individual law schools, as you pointed out, not only had a crisis, but that crisis came to a head in the result of their closing.
Again, I think that will happen all the time. The negative attitudes espoused by law students and law graduated — I’ll say a couple things about those. One, the cost of law school, as is well known, has gone up over the years in an aggregate basis. But what’s more important than the cost of law school going up is that the market for lawyers has really remained flat on both in terms of what the market’s willing to pay for legal services and the number of jobs the market is creating for the traditional practice of law.
So I think that certainly, for those who graduated from school, owe a lot of money and don’t have a job that they feel pays enough or at all, certainly we’ve seen increased bad feelings.
One of the things our research did show though, and if you look more deeply into it, is that over time those feelings tend to abate as lawyers become more senior in their careers and develop a practice or develop or use their skills to do other practices.
I don’t think the dissatisfaction at the front end is any different than it’s ever been. I think today’s lawyers have many more avenues to make those voices heard than I did 25 years ago when I used to sit around the bar and complain to my friends about my student loan payment.
Katie: So it’s always been hard to be a young lawyer, but we’re seeing that as people mature in their practice, they tend to be grateful that they’ve taken this path.
Chris: They tend to be as grateful as everybody else who went through. So for the most is grateful, and the reason for that — the reason for that is if your blood averse, if you’re mathematically challenged, there’s no better place for a smart person to go and get a rigorous intellectually stimulating and portable education, whether you are practicing law at a big firm, whether you’re a public defender, or whether you’re working at a hospital in their public administration office.
Katie: I want to see that on a law school pamphlet — Are you blood averse? Are you mathematically challenged? That come here.
You help students find the true value of a law degree. You yourself have a law degree, passed the bar, had a successful law practice, and then now you are working in a nonprofit. What made you choose to take that path? And do you have advice about some of these alternative career paths for lawyers who don’t necessarily love lawyering?
Chris: I think legal education is great training for anything you want to do. My advice is, look, find something you’re good at and you like. For instance, for me, when I practiced law in a firm, the primary thing I didn’t like wasn’t that the practice of law itself was inherently distasteful; I thought it was very interesting work, but I had had a taste prior to practicing in a firm of working in a corporation where I actually got to make decisions and act. And as a law firm all I was doing was giving advice, and often I didn’t even know what the decision was. And that, for me, was very unsatisfying.
But I had a friend who I went to law school with — very accomplished, did much better in law school than I did, had her pick of big firms and actually took that work for a couple of years and we’d lost touch. And I ran into her a couple of years ago and met at an event, and she quit the practice of law and became a romance novelist, a very successful published romance novelist.
And the key is to me is, look, it’s great to want to follow your passion or hate for practice the law, but kind of going back to our discussion about the financial advice and how to deal with that is, is you have to keep in mind your financial situation before you do it and remember the grass isn’t greener. But whatever you decide, if you work hard and you’re the best, I think legal education and whatever else got you to that point is going to serve you well.
Then finally, the last thing I can render is, is when anybody says anything about, oh, well you’re not a real lawyer — which my sister said to me once, innocently enough — just ignore that.
Katie: Oh, these are wise words of advice from Christopher Chapman, the CEO and president of AccessLex.
Can you tell us a little bit about the resources that AccessLex provides?
Chris: The first thing I’d say is all of our resources that we offer free and they’re available on our website AccessLex.org. But we have student loan calculators that help you understand for various schools and in various barring levels, the impact that will be on a monthly payment through various [inaudible][24:10]
We have AccessConnex, which I talked about earlier, that allows you to have personal financial advice and repayment information about law schools. We also have collections of resources including research and data, as far as data tools around being able to compare law schools, recorded webinars and a variety of others things.
Katie: So head over to AccessLex and check those out. They’re all free. Thank you so much, Chris.
Chris: Thank you.
Katie: I’m Katie Wolf. Thanks so much for listening to the Filevine Fireside.