Maintaining High Standards
One of the major reasons the American Bar Association was established in 1878 was to improve the quality of legal education. Today, more than 125 years later, ensuring the quality of legal education remains a core mission of the ABA. The association carries out this important mission through its law school accreditation program.
In 1921, the ABA adopted minimum standards for legal education and began publishing a list of law schools that complied with those standards. Today, the council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the accrediting agency for programs that lead to the first professional degree in law.
As of August 2005, there are 190 ABA-approved law schools. Total J.D. enrollment in ABA-approved schools has gone from approximately 91,000 students in 1971 to 148,000 in 2005.
During that same period, the number of women students enrolled increased from 8,500 to 66,600, and the number of minority students enrolled rose from 5,500 to 29,900. Every jurisdiction in the United States has determined that graduates of ABA-approved law schools may sit for the bar examination in their jurisdiction.
The association’s approval process provides a comprehensive evaluation of a law school and its compliance with the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools, which are available at www. abanet.org/legaled/standards/standards.html. A law school may apply for provisional approval after one year of operation. The ABA’s consultant on legal education sends a five- to seven-member site evaluation team to an applicant school to conduct a rigorous three-day evaluation. This includes class visits; a review of the school’s self-assessment; and meetings with law school leaders, students and alumni, as well as with members of the bar and judiciary familiar with the school.
The team prepares an extensive site evaluation report for the section’s accreditation committee, which covers all aspects of the school’s operation, including faculty and administration, the academic program, the student body and its success on the bar examination and in placement, student services, library and information resources, financial resources, and physical facilities and technological capacities.
Upon receipt and review of the report, the accreditation committee holds a hearing with representatives of the school, after which it makes its recommendation to the section council. If the council decides to grant provisional approval, it submits that decision to the House of Delegates for concurrence. If it denies provisional approval, the school may appeal to the House and ask that the matter be referred back to the council. Should this occur, the accreditation committee and the council again review the school. In the event of a referral back by the House, the council’s decision after the second referral back is final. Once provisionally approved, a school is entitled to all the rights of a fully approved law school.
Making the Grade
A school remains on provisional status for at least three years but no longer than five, during which time its progress is closely monitored with an annual site evaluation. When a school is evaluated for full approval, the process is identical to that undertaken for provisional approval. After a school is granted full approval, it undergoes a full site evaluation in the third year after full approval, and then a full site evaluation is conducted every seven years thereafter.
To ensure that the ABA Standards are a living document, reflecting current expectations and objectives of legal education, the council maintains an extensive process of review and comment on the Standards, which draws on the contributions of law school deans, law faculty, university presidents, leaders of the bar and judiciary, and others interested in legal education. This year the council, with the assistance of the Standards Review Committee, is completing a comprehensive three-year review of the Standards.
The ABA’s consultant on legal education manages the operation of the accreditation process for the section. John A. Sebert, our outstanding consultant for the past five years, has announced his intent to step down from the position later this year. Sebert will be succeeded by Hulett “Bucky” Askew, currently director of the Office of Bar Admissions for the Supreme Court of Georgia, after the ABA’s annual meeting in August. For more information on the ABA’s accreditation of law schools, visit www.abanet.org/legaled/home.html.