Rod St. Aubyn: What Is The Future Of The Legal Profession?


I was so pleased to see that Governor Dalrymple is awarding the Roughrider Award to ND Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle.  It is an award that Chief Justice VandeWalle deserves.  He is such a humble public servant and someone that lawyers can and do look up to and use as a true role model.  Today’s law students should take notice.

With that said, unfortunately I worry about the legal profession in the future with several recent stories.  You may have seen a story in the news this past September concerning a report that only 56% of UND law school graduates who took the ND bar exam for the first time this past summer had passed.  That percentage compares to the range of 69% to 83% of those taking the exam in the past according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.  UND Law School Dean Kathryn Rand was quoted by a Fargo Forum news story of wanting to help the students.  “What we really want to do is reach out to our students and to increase the support we provide while they’re in law school and leading up to the bar exam.”  Good reasoning.

However, now it seems that this trend of poorer exam scores has occurred in several other states as well.  Now these law schools are questioning the exams instead of looking internally how they can improve the students’ skills and knowledge.  In a November 26 article from the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog it states that “Dozens of law school deans across the country attached their names to a letter sent to the National Conference of Bar Examiners on Tuesday demanding a ‘thorough investigation of the administration and scoring’ of the July, 2014 bar exam.”  The article states that the letter was drafted by Kathryn Rand, Dean of the UND Law School.  The group took offense to a statement made by longtime president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, Erica Moeser.  Ms. Moeser stated in part that “all point to the fact that the group that sat in July 2014 was less able than the group that sat in July, 2013.”  The use of the term “less able” really upset the law school deans forcing Ms. Moeser to state that she regretted using the phrase “less able” and saying that she meant that the students just didn’t perform as well.

Rather than trying to help the students, these Deans are accusing others for the poor results.  Instead of looking what they could do to improve the students’ performances, they chose to attack the exam.  What about the students that passed?  Was that a fluke?

We see two other recent situations in the news that may be cause to worry about our legal educational system.  In the first story, the New York Times reported that the Columbia Law School is allowing their students to postpone their final exams this month “if they feel unnerved by the recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men.”  Of course they are referring to the cases in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island.  I could understand it if a student was a close friend or relative of the deceased, but do the professors or the students not think that they will be faced with stressors when they are actually practicing law?  I can see it now when these future lawyers, if they ever pass the bar exam, go before a judge and ask for a continuance because of their distress when their favorite on The Voice did not get picked to move on in the competition.

Now we come to the second recent situation in a law school which became a news story.  A UCLA law professor was forced to apologize when he used an actual situation in an exam question.  The question was meant to test the students’ ability to analyze the line between free speech and inciting violence.  He used the real life Ferguson situation when Michael Brown’s stepfather shouted “Burn this bitch down” after learning that the grand jury decided that there was not enough evidence to indict the police officer.  Soon after the stepfather shouted out his now famous statement, violence erupted and several buildings and vehicles were torched.

Well once again, political correctness reared its head when several students and a legal blogger stated that the test question was “racially insensitive and divisive.”  The professor apologized and promised not to grade the question.  What do these law students think that the District Attorney in Ferguson is currently facing?  He has to make that same decision.  Is he supposed to ignore the issue because it is “racially insensitive and divisive?”  Yes, it is a very difficult decision and I am personally glad that I don’t have to make that decision.  But I fully expect that a law school-educated attorney who holds the office of District Attorney be able to carefully analyze the law and the facts and make the proper decision if the facts supports his or her position.

Our law school students could learn a lot from our distinguished ND Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle.  His job does not allow him to avoid the tough decisions nor delay justice.  I suppose the readers can now recite their favorite “lawyer joke” in their comments, but I have a lot of respect for many lawyers that I have known.  However I really worry about the future of our legal profession if the examples that I have shown are representative of what we have in our law schools across this country.  Law schools need to quit worrying about “political correctness” and concentrate on training our law students to be critical thinkers and experts in the field of law.  Otherwise, we are bound to see a lot more of those “lawyer jokes.”