Public Interest News Bulletin – November 30, 2012

By: Steve Grumm

Happy Friday, folks.  Before the public interest news, here are some items related to legal education and student debt:

Taken together, I’m intrigued by a batch of law-school news stories reported this week by the National Law JournalFirst, according to preliminary ABA data, law school enrollment has dropped by 15% in the past two years.  Second, two law school deans have been hired out of law firm practice management positions this year.  Third, Vermont Law School (which some are surprised to learn is a stand-alone and not part of the state higher-ed system) is facing a “looming $3.3 million budget shortfall brought on by declining enrollment.”  The school is offering buyouts to staff, and future faculty buyout offers appear likely.

What could this mean?  First, a caveat: the cliché about news being history’s first draft is important.  It’s dangerous to wrongly connect discrete occurrences which are driven by unique circumstances.  But I’m not too far out on a limb to suggest that legal education is about to confront big, big changes.  It’s more a matter of guessing at the magnitude of the changes, and how much tumult will attend them.  Some questions to think about, inspired by the NLJ stories:

  1. Are law school classes going to be considerably smaller for the foreseeable future? Letting alone quantity, will there be any impact on the academic/professional quality of matriculating law classes?
  2. Do we see the beginning of a trend toward law schools hiring deans with law-practice management experience, and not necessarily academic experience?
  3. How could decreased law-school revenue streams impact legal education’s pedagogy?  Schools have been expanding online offerings of late.  They are relatively cheap to run.  Clinical-type programs, on the other hand, are relatively expensive, but they provide invaluable hands-on training.  Could they be threatened?  Or could they be supplemented by other experiential learning opportunities that allow students to, as Vermont Law School’s incoming dean put it, “earn and learn at the same time”?  To say nothing of the possibility of two-year degree programs becoming more popular….

On the education debt front there was an interesting WSJ article this week about how wide and deep are the federal government’s roots in higher-ed lending.  Regardless of where one comes down on the policy debate about the government being the key higher-ed lender, the debate itself is likely to pick up as elected officials look to long-term budget and debt reduction efforts.  Speaking of lenders, also interesting is this Philadelphia Business Journal article about a just-launched venture, CommonBond, that “…plans to use crowdsourcing to raise money from a college’s alumni base to provide education loans to the college’s current students. It intends to provide loans to more than 50 Wharton MBA students in December and expand nationally next year. The company said the loans will have a fixed rate of 6.24 percent and the alumni who supply the money for the loans can expect an annual return of more than 4 percent on their investments.  CommonBond has raised $3.5 million — $2.5 million from alumni to fund loans and $1 million from a super angel to fund its operations.”  My friend Heather Jarvis, who’s a sharp analyst of education lending policy, mentioned recently that she’s seeing new innovations from private lenders.  I think that’s likely to keep happening. 

Okay, the public interest and access-to-justice news in short:

  • ABA ATJ grant deadlines;
  • higher pay for CT prosecutors/defenders;
  • Birmingham’s new PD office getting off the ground (and maybe hiring);
  • Seattle’s PD program may get a big overhaul;
  • what to look for in the DOJ’s next ATJ director;
  • a legal aid office closure outside Philly;
  • pro bono abroad;
  • Music! 

 The summaries:

  • moments before publishing the Bulletin I got an email announcing 2012 recipients of ABA access-to-justice grants and, more importantly, announcing the application process for 2013 grants.  Applications for grants to promote creation of new state ATJ commissions are due on Feb. 15, 2013.  ATJ “Innovation” grant applications (to promote new work from existing ATJ commissions) are due on May 1, 2013.  Details here.
  • 11.30.12 – this came up in a prior Bulletin edition, but I’m happy to repeat good news:  “A recent national study has found that pay for prosecutors and public defenders has barely budged since 2004. The situation is only a little better in Connecticut, where the public sector attorneys last got a raise in 2009.  But that’s about to change. Next summer, Connecticut prosecutors and public defenders are slated to receive a 3 percent raise, adding about $1,850 annually to the current entry level salary of $61,900. Veterans with 10 years experience will see salaries increase from about $91,600 to about $94,000.”  (Story from the Connecticut Law Tribune.)
  • 11.29.12 – “Jefferson County’s [i.e. greater Birmingham, AL’s] newly created Public Defender Office will be led by Birmingham attorney Kira Fonteneau.  According to al.com, a team of lawyers under Fonteneau will be responsible for representing poor criminal defendants charged in the Birmingham division of Jefferson County’s court system and who otherwise can’t afford an attorney.  Fonteneau said as many as 35 lawyers could be hired as assistant public defenders for that office.”  (Story from the Birmingham Business Journal.)
  • 11.29.12 – King County’s [i.e. greater Seattle’s] complicated public-defense system of four separate nonprofit agencies representing about 30,000 defendants annually has been praised by legal scholars….  But the county is pushing a plan that would dissolve the independent agencies and make public defenders county employees, a move proponents say is in response to a lawsuit filed by a public defender. Under the plan, the nearly 400 employees of the four agencies — The Defender Assocation [sic], Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, Associated Counsel for the Accused and Northwest Defenders Association — could potentially become King County employees by July 1….”  (Story from the Seattle Times.)
  • 11.28.12 =- Access-to-justice blogger Richard Zorza reminded me that the U.S. DOJ is looking to fill the captain’s chair in it’s Access to Justice Initiative office: “With the election over, its time to reflect on what kind of person we need to take on the crucial mantle of Larry Tribe and Mark Childress at the DOJ Access Initiative.  It’s a very important job, and needs a strong leader.  There seem to be three areas of needed skill: Knowing the DC Levers…Ability to Draw Public Attention to the Issue…[and] Ability to See the Big Picture and Advance Transformative Agendas.”  (Here’s the full blog post.)  http://accesstojustice.net/2012/11/28/what-we-need-now-at-doj/
  • 11.27.12 – it’s noted in passing in this article about budget cuts in suburban Philly, but “Legal Aid of Southeast Pennsylvania is closing its Pottstown office and laying off at least two employees.”  (Full article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
  • Two pieces concerning pro bono abroad:
    • PSJD blog readers clamor for updates on English and Welsh pro bono happenings.  So here, from the UK-based Access to Justice Foundation, is the “The Pro Bono Yearbook of England and Wales 2012.”
    • 11.22.12 – an interview with Hogan Lovells international pro bono manager, from the TrustLaw website: “Global economic woes have sharpened the need for pro bono work in both low-income and developed countries, according to law firm Hogan Lovells.  In a written interview its international pro bono manager, Yasmin Waljee, tells TrustLaw about the firm’s pro bono work and why it makes sense for law firms to support social enterprises.”  

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