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2028th Stated Meeting: The Crisis in Legal Education

Watch video of this event.

On December 4, 2015, Jonathan Fanton welcomed Academy members and legal experts to share their thoughts on “The Crisis in Legal Education.” In his opening remarks, excerpted here, Dr. Fanton identified the pressures facing law schools and the legal profession, writ large, to adapt to pressing societal demands while also honoring the core values that make American legal education distinct.

The event served as the 2028th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

Good afternoon. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy, and it is my pleasure to welcome you, and to call to order the 2028th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Let me begin by thanking Dean William Treanor for hosting us at the Georgetown University Law Center. Currently, the Academy has ten members from the Georgetown University faculty. Of those ten, three are from Georgetown Law School, one of whom we were pleased to elect this year to our membership: Professor Robin West, who will be one of our panelists today.

We are grateful that such a distinguished panel of speakers has agreed to participate in today’s program, and I would like to thank especially Academy Fellow Professor Louis Michael Seidman for bringing forward this important topic, and for his role in shaping our discussion on the “Crisis in Legal Education.”

This topic represents an important thread in the Academy’s work. Last month, we held a meeting in Cambridge on “Making Justice Accessible.” The two-day symposium brought together state and federal judges, law professors, private practice attorneys, and legal aid specialists from across the nation to discuss the difficult challenge of ensuring equal access to justice for all Americans, regardless of their means. This issue is important to our conversation today because of the pressures law schools are under to contribute to a solution. “Making Justice Accessible” was organized through the Academy’s new Exploratory Fund, which was established earlier this year to support members who seek to work together to consider problems from fresh perspectives and to search for connections between research and policy that advance the common good.

Today is not the first time that the Academy has collaborated with Georgetown Law. In 2008, the Academy’s project on the Independence of the Judiciary joined with Georgetown Law Center’s Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary to produce an issue of the Academy’s journal Dædalus, titled, “On Judicial Independence.” The issue stimulated an important conversation on the challenges to preserving judicial independence, the rule of law and judicial accountability. The volume included essays written by Sandra Day O’Connor, Margaret Marshall, and Stephen Breyer.

The Academy has also in the past focused on legal education. In 1963, Academy Fellow and distinguished Harvard Law School professor Paul Freund published an essay in Dædalus titled, “The Legal Profession.” In his essay, Freund called for the three “branches of the profession: the academic, the practicing, and the judicial” to have greater representation in law school curricula. He wrote that this would lead “[law] schools to a sharper appreciation of what they have always professed, that their mission is not to produce lawyers, but minds trained for law.” Freund felt passionately that the legal field required adaptability and what he called “imaginative learning” to benefit both the law student and the legal profession as a whole. I think Professor Freund’s words will echo through our discussion today as we examine the current crisis in legal education.

Legal education faces a number of challenges: declining enrollments, rising student debt, a stagnant job market. Our speakers will address these fast-changing realities and important questions such as: How has legal education evolved, especially in recent years? How can law schools remain committed to the traditions of the legal profession while at the same time adapting curricula to fit the demands of a more specialized and competitive legal job market? How can law schools train students committed to justice for all, regardless of wealth or power? How can law schools maintain their independence from the bar, the judiciary and other branches of government? These questions resonate with the mission of the American Academy as we seek to advance the common good and strengthen our democracy.

At this point, Dr. Fanton introduced William Treanor, Dean of Georgetown University Law Center.

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