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The American Bar Association Stifles Legal Education

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Economics, History, Law, Law School on June 28, 2017 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Library of Law and Liberty.

The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications is a nonprofit accrediting agency for journalism programs. Bradley Hamm, the dean at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, has called the council’s accreditation-review process “flawed,” “superficial,” “extremely time-consuming,” and “sort of a low bar.”

So he’s gotten out. Northwestern University has effectively terminated its relationship with the council, calmly embracing its new status as unaccredited.

The online journal Inside Higher Ed, which points out that the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, has done the same, quotes Dean Hamm as saying that, “as we near the 2020s, we expect far better than a 1990s-era accreditation organization that resists change—especially as education and careers in our field evolve rapidly.”

This is a tremendous blow—when two of the most prominent and celebrated journalism programs in the country refuse to acknowledge the authority and legitimacy of an accreditor, it’s tough for the accreditor to argue that the resistant institutions are merely upset about their ability to maintain accreditation. If other journalism schools are frustrated with the council’s obsolete standards, and its tendency to micromanage curricula, more of them will likely follow the example of Northwestern and Berkeley.

The social and financial costs of burdensome accreditation standards and procedures are even more pronounced in the field of law. Small businesses and Americans of modest income struggle to afford the high costs of hiring an attorney or litigating a case. Access to justice or quality representation is a constant concern within the legal profession.

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association, which remains the only accrediting body for law schools in the United States, regulates legal education in a way that drives up costs for law students, and for the consumers onto whom those costs are eventually projected.

The ABA restricts innovation by fixing the number of credit hours necessary for law students to graduate, effectively eliminating the possibility of a shorter program than the standard three years. It discourages law professors from honing their practical skills by narrowing the designation of “full-time” faculty to exclude those who maintain an ongoing remunerative relationship with a law firm or business. Its requirements regarding equipment and technology mean, in practice, that many schools are buying expensive computers and furnishing computer labs that students may never use.

ABA scrutiny of attrition rates has also contributed to a change in law-school culture and practices. There was a time when law schools could accept a high percentage of applicants who, as students, had to prove their competence in the classroom and stand or fall on their academic merit. Those who couldn’t cut it flunked out. They didn’t incur three years of debt only to take and retake a bar exam they weren’t equipped to pass.

The ABA position penalizing schools for high attrition—the result of a new interpretation of Standard 501(b) that prohibits law schools from admitting applicants who aren’t “capable” of completing a Juris Doctor or passing a bar exam—now arguably causes law schools to seek to retain students who can’t cut it. To that end, it encourages grade inflation and heavier use of student loans.

Law schools recently came under criticism for hiring their own graduates as a way to boost their post-graduation employment statistics. In response, the ABA instituted procedures to prevent the spread of misleading data. What seemed like a good-faith effort to enhance transparency and accountability has led, instead, to flawed incentives. Law schools have taken to promoting “JD-required” and “bar-passage-required” jobs to their graduates more strongly than corporate or financial positions that pay higher salaries but don’t require either a law license or bar membership.

If you graduated from law school today and became the CEO of a large, multinational company tomorrow, you would skew your school’s data in an unfavorable direction.

This changed emphasis neglects the realities of a marketplace in which the availability of traditional law jobs remains stagnant. To best serve their students, law schools should feel free to guide them toward alternative careers based in new technologies and businesses that would benefit from the knowledge and leadership that legal education supplies.

The ABA’s ministrations also help drive up the price of legal education, forcing law schools to direct time and resources toward ABA compliance that could be put toward student scholarships or improving the curriculum. And a higher price tag means that members of the legal profession, and young lawyers in particular, in order to pay debts or compensate for opportunity costs incurred during law school, pass these costs on to consumers in the form of higher legal fees.

The bottom line is that, when a substantial portion of the population cannot afford to hire an attorney, or at least feels that way, the legal system has failed in its chief purpose: to ensure that wrongs are righted and justice is served.

Unintended harm, however, is nothing new for the ABA.

Founded in 1878 by “leading” or “representative” lawyers who were selected by an elite group of men from states along the East Coast, the ABA sought to nationalize professional and ethical standards with these goals: “to advance the science of jurisprudence, promote the administration of justice and uniformity of legislation throughout the Union, uphold the honor of the profession of the law, and encourage cordial intercourse among the members.”[1]

Noble ambitions indeed. But the organization soon became a fraternal guild that sought to enforce rigid barriers to entry into the legal profession with the assistance of independent bar associations in the 50 states. “For many years,” explained legal scholar Philip J. Wickser in the 1920s, “the Association fought hard to retain its selective quality, and not to forget that a relatively small homogenous group could get the most done.”[2]

The ABA officially excluded African Americans for 66 years, according to Susan D. Carle in her 2013 book Defining the Struggle. Its ouster of three African Americans in 1912 on the basis of their skin color drew protests from the newly founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That same year, the ABA issued a resolution stating that “it has never been contemplated that members of the colored race should become members of this Association.”[3]

Although the ABA has since sought to make up for its racist past by increasing the ethnic diversity of its membership, creating a commission on sexual orientation and gender identity, and strengthening its rules prohibiting racial harassment or discrimination, part of its purpose historically has been to regulate entry into the profession and decrease the number of low-income, immigrant, and minority lawyers[4] (though in recent decades such decreases have been a consequence, not the purpose, of ABA regulation).

No matter how hard the ABA attempts to distance itself from its origins, it cannot escape the fact that its function is to exclude certain groups from membership to enable a monopoly on legal services by its members. Such exclusion has tended to fall along racial lines. One law professor has thus complained that “all of the ABA’s diversity efforts ring hollow” because the ABA “caused blacks to be excluded from the profession in the first place.”[5]

Given its racially charged beginnings and racially dividing regulations and standards, it’s surprising that the ABA is still considering revising Standard 316, which addresses the bar-passage rates of law-school graduates. Compliance with the revised standard would require bar passage by 75 percent of the graduates of a currently approved (as opposed to provisionally approved) law school in at least three of the last five years.[6]

A few months ago, Lawrence P. Nolan, the president of the State Bar of Michigan, penned a letter to ABA delegates to point out, among other things, that minority organizations—and even the ABA Council for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline—were against the proposed revision to Standard 316. “The collective judgment of those committed to [reducing] the . . . racial disparity in the legal profession,” he said, “is reflected in their unanimous opposition to this amendment.”

Nolan also stated that the ABA’s own data “confirms the large gap for African-American bar passage rates, which are lower than overall rates, particularly on the multiple-choice test.” Statistics cited by Nolan show that African Americans pass the bar exam at a lower rate than whites and that the percentage of white repeat takers of the bar exam is 3.2 percent whereas the figure for black repeat takers is 14.1 percent. If those statistics are accurate and predictive, then the effects of the revised standard would fall disproportionately on those schools with higher numbers of African American students.

Supporters of the proposed revision portray law schools as exploiters of racial minorities that have been admitting underqualified applicants to make up for diminishing admissions applications. There’s truth to this characterization. Law-school admissions standards have dropped precipitously as enrollment has declined.

But why trust the organization that caused or at least exacerbated many of these problems to fix them? We need imagination and rational risk to move forward constructively and creatively. Proposals as wide-ranging as abolishing the bar exam or developing non-JD curricula in law schools ought to be seriously considered. Another idea would be to strip the ABA of its accrediting powers altogether, something the U.S. Department of Education might consider.

During this moment of social unrest, when rancorous partisanship seems to permeate all fields of discourse, faculty and administration all along the political spectrum can agree on one thing: The ABA is systematically harming ethnic minorities and becoming as obsolete as its counterpart in journalism education.

It may well be time for top-ranked law schools to follow in the footsteps of the J-schools at Northwestern and Berkeley. Only if several leading law schools joined to seek an end to the ABA’s accrediting function would this reform stand a chance. Law schools with lower rankings may lack the credibility to resist, given their stake in the accreditation process. Their administrators already, in my view, avoid speaking out against the ABA due to their reasonable fear of retaliation. (My own trepidation almost prevented this piece from reaching print.)

Granted, it might give the law schools pause that in most states, admission to the bar (by authority of the state bar or the state supreme court) is conditioned on holding a degree from an ABA-accredited law school. Still, the journalism-school revolt demonstrates that a mass rebuff of the ABA’s accrediting legitimacy is neither extreme nor absurd. Prominent law schools are already experimenting in other areas, such as considering GRE scores (rather than just LSAT scores) for admissions purposes. Such experimentation is all to the good.

The legal profession is, in the words of Benjamin Barton, “facing a major retrenchment” and remains mired in outmoded tasks that artificial intelligence may replace. It’s stuck in a bygone period when lawyers felt threatened by entrepreneurial upstarts who breached longstanding protocols such as prohibitions on advertising or contingency fees. It’s time for an energetic rethinking of the goals and purpose of legal education and the legal profession.

Ending ABA accreditation authority would be an exciting first step. It would enable administrators to reallocate resources to lower the costs of legal education and, consequently, of legal services. And it would allow them to focus on their true mission: not lining the pockets of accreditation agencies and bureaucratic guilds but educating prospective lawyers and bringing justice and order to rich and poor alike.

The views expressed herein are solely the author’s, and do not reflect those of Faulkner University’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law or its Blackstone and Burke Center.

 

[1] Simeon E. Baldwin, “The Founding of the American Bar Association,” The American Bar Association Journal 3 (1917), 659-62, 695.

[2] Philip J. Wickser, “Bar Associations,” Cornell Law Quarterly 15 (1929-30), 398.

[3] Susan D. Carle, Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915 (Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 281-82, and 541-43.

[4] Jerold S. Auerbach, Unequal Justice: Lawyers and Social Change in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 65: “During the second decade of the twentieth century the American Bar Association began to assert itself aggressively as a professional protective organization. Its purpose was twofold: to preserve its own exclusiveness (and the status that accompanied its preservation) and to exert professional leverage upon the political process.” For admission of minorities, see Auerbach, pp. 65-66, 71, 107, 131, 159-60, 200, 216, and 295.

[5] George B. Shepherd, “No African-American Lawyers Allowed: The Inefficient Racism of the ABA’s Accreditation of Law Schools,” Journal of Legal Education 53 (2003), 104.

[6] The ABA Council and the Accreditation Committee of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar operate independently of the ABA pursuant to regulations of the U.S. Department of Education, which recognizes these bodies as authorized accreditors. For ease of reference and understanding, and because of the connection between these accrediting bodies and the ABA, the taxonomy I have adopted simply lumps these bodies together under the heading of “ABA.”

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Paul Goldstein About His Latest Novel, “Legal Asylum”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Law, Law School, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Teaching, The Academy, Writing on March 1, 2017 at 6:45 am

Paul Goldstein is an expert on intellectual property law and the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of an influential four-volume treatise on U.S. copyright law and a one-volume treatise on international property. He has also authored ten books including five novels. Some of his other works include Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, a widely acclaimed book on the history and future of copyright, and Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business. Havana Requiem, his third novel, won the 2013 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

AM:  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What has been your colleagues’ reaction to this satire? 

PG:  My colleagues are, by and large, a sturdy and good-natured lot, and most of the reactions I’ve received have been very positive. Several have told me that they actually found themselves laughing out loud while reading the book. Still, there are a couple of colleagues who I know have read the book, but who seem curiously silent, and avoid my glance in the hallways. Who knows what they’re thinking!

AM:  Were you afraid your colleagues might push back against the novel, seeing themselves in the characters?  

PG:  I decided at the outset not to make Legal Asylum a roman a clef—a genre that I find cowardly and mean-spirited, and that I put in the same category as practical jokes. At the same time, there are certainly recognizable types of legal academics in the book, and it’s been a good deal of fun talking with colleagues about which group they put themselves in—Poets, Quants or Bog Dwellers.

AM:  In an interview with Jon Malysiak, the director of Ankerwycke Books, you stated that you’d spent 50 years thinking about the absurd and eccentric features of legal education. What are some of these?

PG:  One absurdity of course is the grim-faced crusade of law school deans to secure for their institutions a higher and still higher slot in the US News law school rankings, or at least not to slip from their present perch. That’s the question that drives the story: Can a law school make it into the US News Top Five and lose its ABA accreditation, all in the same year? Another absurdity highlighted in Legal Asylum is that, where in other university departments academic advancement, including tenure, turns on publication in peer-reviewed journals, American law schools commit the credentialing function to second-year law students who run the law reviews.

AM:  Your book is funny.  Why is humor a powerful mode of critique?

PG:  I’m glad you found the book funny! As to why humor is such a powerful mode of critique, it is because, for humor to work, it has to surprise the reader. Wait…she said that! He did what! And it’s that surprise, that unexpected twist, that turns the reader’s angle of view a fraction of a degree—or if it’s a belly laugh, maybe a full degree—so that the subject of the lampoon suddenly appears in a different light. To discover, for example, that the emperor is wearing no clothes, is not only funny, but it’s also a powerful critique of a certain kind of political leader.

AM:  You’ve called your protagonist, Dean Elspeth Flowers, a hero.  Why?

PG:  For a literary hero to be at all interesting, she or he needs to be flawed—the deeper the flaw the better—because it is only character defects like pride, willfulness and grandiosity that will get the hero in trouble, and without trouble, what kind of story do you have? Several readers of Legal Asylum have told me how shocked they were to discover that, by the end of the book, they were truly rooting for Elspeth.

AM:  Is there anything good about the obsession with law-school rankings and the so-called “arms race” between law schools?

PG:  I’m sure there are some beneficiaries of the law school rankings game. The companies that publish all those glossy brochures touting law school achievements to prospective respondents in the US News polls certainly come out ahead. So do the airlines that fly admitted students to the law schools that are recruiting them like prized football prospects. And of course there’s US News itself, for which rankings must be a rare profit center in a bleak economic landscape for news media.

AM:  It’s interesting that the American Bar Association doesn’t dodge satire in the book, yet the ABA—or a division of it—published the book.

PG:  I have a wonderful and brave editor at Ankerwycke, and he didn’t once bat an eye at the parts of the story that poke fun at the A.B.A accreditation process.

AM:  Did you ever consider writing about lower-ranked law schools, or did you, a Stanford law professor, write from the perspective you knew—from a top-ranked law school?  I’m thinking now of Charlotte Law School and the troubles it’s been facing in light of the Department of Education’s decision to revoke federal funding there. It seems to me that law professors and administrators at these schools, who are in crisis mode, may not be in the mood for humor about legal education. 

PG:  My first law teaching job was at a state law school and, although this was long before the rankings game got underway, I can say that, like countless other schools today—state and private—that haven’t made it into the top tiers, it was preparing its students for the practice of law as effectively as any law school in the country. Are there law schools that shouldn’t be in business today? I expect that there are, and that has nothing to do with the US News hierarchy. But other schools have a legitimate grievance against rankings that pretend that their fine-grained hierarchical distinctions convey any useful information.

AM:  Why the noun “asylum” in the title of the book?  It’s provocative and suggestive.

PG:  I like book titles that are at once evocative and descriptive. It’s hard to beat Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, for example.  There is of course an asylum for the criminally insane that figures in the plot of Legal Asylum, but the book’s title also aims to evoke the sheltered craziness that passes for legal education at the state law school where the story takes place.

AM:  Thanks again for the interview.  Any closing comments about how readers can find your work?

PG:  It was a pleasure. Readers can buy the book at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Shop ABA.

Why law schools should be transparent about their problems and prospective law students should exercise due diligence before they matriculate at law schools

In Academia, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy on February 22, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

When I was in college, the common assumption was that students who couldn’t decide what to do after graduation enrolled in law school. The law was a fallback profession, the legal academy a repository for good but dithering students looking to find their way.

Things have changed. The blogosphere abounds with news about the crisis in legal education. The global financial recession brought about a decrease in law-school applications and LSAT takers while tuition rates continued rising. Undergraduates increasingly determined that law school was not worth the time or student-loan debt, in part because starting salaries for lawyers remained stagnant while the job market for legal positions remained saturated.

Law schools with struggling reputations (say, those which fall into the fourth tier of the U.S. News and World Report rankings) have experienced a decrease in applications and reduced matriculation rates. Forced to shrink the size of their classes to remain statistically competitive and satisfy American Bar Association (ABA) admissions standards, these schools have taken creative measures such as accepting more transfer students and developing non-J.D. courses and programming to counteract reduced tuition revenue.

Elite institutions are not immune from trouble. One study has shown that applications to Harvard Law School are down 18%. Applications to the University of Minnesota Law School are down 50%, forcing that school to scramble to save money. It reportedly has not only bought out faculty but also cut coffee in the faculty lounge. Dorothy Brown, a professor of tax law at Emory University School of Law, predicts the imminent closure of a top law school. Meanwhile, as these financial woes grow and spread, LSAT scores and bar passage rates continue to worsen at lower-ranked institutions.

The ABA and the Department of Education (DOE) are cracking down on law schools, the former in response to pressure from the latter.  The DOE, in 2016, proposed a one-year revocation of the ABA’s accreditation powers. Consequently, the ABA has more aggressively enforced compliance with its admissions standards, threatening law schools with, among other things, reprimands, probation, and sanctions. For example, the ABA instituted a remedial plan to reverse the negative trends of Ave Maria School of Law’s bar-passage rates and admissions data. Around three months ago, the ABA censured Valparaiso University School of Law and placed Charlotte School of Law on probation.

The ABA has not revoked Charlotte School of Law’s accreditation, but the DOE has nevertheless terminated this school’s access to federal student aid. Law students there have filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that Charlotte School of Law and its parent company, InfiLaw, misrepresented the extent of the problems they were confronting, thereby misleading students about the health of the institution in which they were enrolled. Speculation now circulates about whether the closure of Charlotte Law School is inevitable.

Indiana Tech Law School, known for its experimental pedagogical approaches, has announced that it is shutting down. Other law schools have turned to institutional consolidation to remain financially viable. The William Mitchell College of Law, for instance, merged with Hamline University School of Law in 2015. Thomas M. Cooley Law School affiliated with Western Michigan University in 2014, changing its name to Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. It closed its Ann Arbor campus that same year.

The good news for worried law school administrators is that the ABA House of Delegates has voted down proposed Resolution 110B, which would have required 75% of graduates from any law school to pass the bar exam within two years, a figure that would have resulted in the non-compliance of several schools with ABA standards.

In this climate of institutional contraction and uncertainty, law school administrators must remain transparent, lest they invite litigation of the kind facing Charlotte School of Law. On the other hand, prospective law students must complete their due diligence before enrolling in law school. Although the doctrine of caveat emptor has faded away, some residual form of it could benefit the wider culture. Absent any evidence of fraudulent misrepresentation or deceptive practices, law schools should not be liable for the poor matriculation decisions of starry-eyed students.

Prospective law students have a personal responsibility to make informed choices about their graduate education. They should examine closely a law school’s admissions data, including GPA and LSAT scores, and stay sober about their own qualifications and preparedness for law school. They should account for a law school’s employment records and bar-passage rates. And they should research the state of the legal job market in the geographical area surrounding different law schools, paying close attention to the hiring patterns of local firms and organizations.

Not everyone goes to law school for the same reason. Some wish to study at an institution with a religious affiliation; others attend schools that consistently secure for their graduates judicial clerkships or opportunities to work at prestigious law firms. It’s important that prospective law students know exactly what they want from law school—and that they refuse to “settle” on a law school that isn’t a good fit for them.

During this transitional period for legal education, law schools with a long history of recognized stability may not satisfy consumer demands as they once did. Law schools need students, and they’re recruiting them vigorously with mixed results. The days when law school was a prudent option for students who waffled about their profession or career are long gone. While law schools should be scrutinized for their marketing strategies and admissions and employment data, students, too, should be responsible for their poor decisions.

Accountability runs both ways. Law schools and prospective law students alike must equip themselves with knowledge of the legal job market—in addition to the costs and demands of legal education—and adjust their plans accordingly. Otherwise their future could be bleak.

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