The Value of Legal Education

By Wegner, Judith Welch | Nottingham Law Journal, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

The Value of Legal Education


Wegner, Judith Welch, Nottingham Law Journal


We live in challenging times for legal education-in the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), and elsewhere. Thoughtful scholars, recent graduates, leading lawyers, and policymakers convened at Nottingham Trent University early in 2014 to explore a pressing issue: what is the value of legal education during this time of major social, economic, and professional change? The thinking of many participants was informed by the LETR Report. (1) My contribution to the conference, and here, is to offer an American perspective and a comparative lens.

The core question posed--what is the value of legal education--is a provocative one that could be answered in a number of different ways. In my keynote speech for the conference I argued that legal education does not have a singular "value" but instead encompasses several distinctive sets of values. In evaluating the economic value of a legal education, not only financial factors but personal satisfaction and alternative options should be assessed. Institutional values must also be considered since legal education typically serves both as a mode of liberal education and as a source of professional preparation. Educational values are also served, and become more evident as law programmes become more cognizant of the importance of learning outcomes and alternative modes of assessment. Education that places ethics, professionalism and professional identity at the forefront of students' minds effectively inculcates ethical values, whether or not graduates practise law or pursue some future course. Finally, legal education can promote social values, if careful attention is paid to preparing students to engage with their obligation to promote access to justice and to craft a fairer society in their future lives. My talk's ultimate goal was to encourage faculty, lawyers and policymakers to recognize and grapple with these diverse sets of values in determining how best to strengthen legal education in the UK during a time of profound change.

This essay takes a somewhat different tack. It proceeds in four parts. First it asks why we are preoccupied with the value of legal education at this time in history? Second, it considers lessons learned through the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's study of legal education, Educating Lawyers, and how those lessons document the educational value associated with law school study (and the gaps that can yet be filled). Third, it considers recent efforts in the United States to push law schools to greater levels of accountability through incorporation of new assessment requirements in accreditation standards. Finally, it responds to several key recommendations of the LETR Report with thoughts about how additional value can be added to the system of legal education training that is now and in the future will characterize practices in the United Kingdom.

WHY VALUE? WHY NOW?

In recent years discussion of the "value of legal education" in the United States has centered in particular on the economic value of legal education. The Oxford English Dictionary (worthy source!) defines "value" in two principal ways: (I) "worth or quality as measured by a standard of equivalence"; and (II) "Worth based on esteem; quality viewed in terms of importance, usefulness, desirability, etc." (2) Recent American conversations seem to have centered on the first of these definitions of "value," particularly in the face of rising tuitions and declining jobs. (3) The implications of this nuance are important since the framing of the debate suggests both some disdain for lawyers or for those with particular educational pedigrees, and some judgment that the worth of a legal education is not especially related to the costs incurred in its attainment. Where did these judgments come from? A number of factors seem pertinent.

Following World War II, Americans saw higher education as a collective good that benefited society. …

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