ABA Adversely Reviewing Schools in Light of Criticism

InsideHigherEd provided a comprehensive overview of recent actions by the American Bar Association (ABA) in what is seemingly a response to the long-standing criticism of legal education.

As noted, earlier this month, the ABA’s accrediting arm recommended against approving the University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law, citing low admissions test scores scores of entering students. Days later, it found Ave Maria Law School in Florida out of compliance with its standards, again citing admissions practices. The ABA is also considering tightening bar-passage standards to make them tougher for schools to meet. 

The long-standing criticism stems from the law school bubble that was created during the recession. Law schools, like many other areas of higher education, saw increased enrollment during the recession. But the job market for law graduates has tightened in recent years. That’s meant more lawyers looking for work and fewer applications from prospective law students. To fill out their incoming classes, some programs began admitting less-qualified students who are more likely to struggle on the bar exam and to find employment after taking on large student debt loads, experts say. Those issues were clearly on the minds of members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity -- the federal body that oversees higher ed accreditors -- at its July meeting. Ultimately, the NACIQI suspended the ABA from accrediting new institutions for one year. 

The action of the NACIQI does not come without its own set of criticism, however. Ohio State University law professor Deborah Jones Merritt said the ABA’s accrediting arm hadn’t taken enough of a nuanced approach toward UNT Dallas specifically. Whether a school is admitting students who will succeed in law school and in taking the bar exam is not just a matter of LSAT scores, Merritt said. UNT has sought to train lawyers interested in representing lower-income residents by admitting students from more diverse, and non-traditional backgrounds. The school, which was launched in 2014, also placed a lower priority on LSAT scores than many institutions. Instead, it looked for work experience and other accomplishments that indicated applicants could succeed in classes and on the bar exam. And UNT is charging thousands less in tuition and fees than even other public law schools in the state. But ABA staff cited those admissions standards and concerns over financial stability in recommending against accreditation. 

As one commenter on the InsideHigherEd article points out, Bar passage rates have been the elephant in the room of law school affirmative action admissions since the 1970s - affirmative action admits were almost all (there were exceptions, but very, very few) admitted with LSAT scores a full standard deviation below that of 'nonminority' students, and the bar passage rates reflected this. At one law prominent public school where [the commenter] saw the numbers in the late 1970s-early 1980s, 20% of the class was admitted on affirmative action. The 'white' first time bar passage rate averaged over several years around 92%, with the 'black' first time bar passage rate running around 67% and the Hispanic first time bar passage rate running around 80%. This sort of thing is discussed at some length in the book Mismatched.... Now, as law school applications are down, you're seeing schools below the elite levels admitting lots of 'nonminority' students who have similarly low LSAT scores and concomitantly lower first time bar passage rates.The biggest problem here is that toughening standards - insisting on LSAT scores that suggest a student has a reasonable chance of first time bar passage - will hit minorities and poor nonminority prospective law students worst. Which the ABA types don't want to do.

And I would further add that they shouldn't do it. We already have issues with diversity in the legal field, and this sort of gatekeeping will continue to exacerbate the problem. This isn't because minorities or poor nonminority students are dumb. It's because the current state of legal education and higher education, in general, advances students who have been supported and encouraged throughout their education with better schools and test prep, etc.... Instead of gatekeeping before law school, we should consider innovative ways of teaching during law school that will ensure success in the legal field on a broader scale. Of course there are other issues with the cost of legal education and making sure that students who take on the huge debt load for a JD degree can successfully take a bar exam, but that isn't done with LSAT score alone.

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