TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Law Schools Are Under The Microscope

Inside Higher Ed, Law Schools Under the Microscope:

The ABA has publicly posted reports on the accreditation status of more than 5 percent of the law schools it approves in the last 18 months, providing a window into the continued aftereffects of the law school bubble. ...

Cooley Law School’s case stands as a microcosm of developments that have been battering nonelite legal education for years. After enjoying an enrollment surge in the first decade of the new century, many law schools have more recently struggled mightily amid a dearth of jobs for young lawyers, dwindling student interest, worries schools were encouraging students to take on high debts they would struggle to repay, and intense criticism that many schools had been admitting students who never had the academic chops necessary to become practicing lawyers. At the same time, the accreditation world has been grinding toward greater transparency, placing some institutions under an unwelcome harsh light.

Resulting developments epitomize the fallout from an admissions bubble. Some schools have resisted changes in the legal education market and regulatory world. Others have moved to shrink in size or exit the market entirely. Observers worry that the most vulnerable students and minority students, who have been taken advantage of in the past, are now being shut out of law schools as the market contracts.

It all comes together in a pressure cooker, because success in legal education and the legal field is so closely tied to students passing the bar examination.

“You start with an exam that I would say is flawed,” said Deborah Jones Merritt, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. “And then, does it make sense any sense to tie accreditation to that exam? As much as I don’t like the exam, I think it does, because most people who go to law school want to become lawyers.” ...

Between June 2016 and December 2017, the accreditor notified 11 law schools that they had been censured, placed on probation, found to be out of compliance with standards or that they needed to take remedial action. Since then, it has notified one more. It has publicly posted letters about the findings starting in August 2016.

The schools are Ave Maria School of LawValparaiso University School of LawAppalachian School of Law, the State University of New York University at Buffalo School of LawThomas Jefferson School of LawTexas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Atlanta’s John Marshall Law SchoolCooley School of LawNorth Carolina Central University School of Law and the InfiLaw schools. Standards involving admissions were invoked in nearly every case, although some schools were also cited for standards relating to academic rigor, finances, furnishing information and, in the case of Texas Southern, fostering opportunity without discrimination. The ABA did not point to admissions standards in a letter to SUNY Buffalo, instead citing standards related to financial resources and record keeping.

With only a few exceptions, the law schools are still accredited and should have the chance to bring themselves into compliance. Now-closed Charlotte is one exception. Another is Valparaiso, but not because it still faces accreditation issues. The ABA found Valparaiso in compliance with standards this year after censuring it for admissions practices in 2016.

In many cases, institutions the ABA has named in accreditation activity have sent letters to students or responded publicly that they expect to remain open and show that they fully comply with standards. ...

The ABA hasn’t necessarily been enforcing accreditation standards more stringently in the last 18 months. Data maintained by the Department of Education on accreditation suggest that the ABA had previously placed law schools on show-cause status without publicly posting the decisions on its website. The department listed several institutions as being placed on or removed from show-cause status in 2016 and early 2017, but the webpages where the ABA has been posting letters recently did not reference those cases.

Now, the ABA is publicly posting about its actions in cases where it may not have in the past.

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