Legal Education

Expanded online law school classes could continue under plan endorsed by ABA legal ed council

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Students taking a virtual class

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The council of the ABA's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar would have more authority to enact short-term, emergency policies and procedures for schools under a proposed law school accreditation rule change endorsed Friday by the council.

The council discussed the proposal during a remote meeting Friday afternoon. It follows concerns from deans that if their schools continue to teach online for the fall term due to the coronavirus pandemic, they might run afoul of Standard 306, which allows for only up to one-third of credits to be taught online unless a variance is given.

A May 8 standards review subcommittee memo detailed the proposal, which suggests adding new language to Rule 2, authorizing the council to adopt emergency policies and procedures in response to “extraordinary circumstances” under which meeting the standards would constitute an extreme hardship for law schools. The proposal would apply to law schools regionally or nationally, not individually.

The rule change would need to be approved by the ABA’s House of Delegates at the 2020 ABA Annual Meeting in early August.

Additionally, the council is preparing a questionnaire for law schools, focused on what they will be doing for the fall term if the COVID-19 pandemic requires more online courses.

Separate from the rule proposal, the council Friday also voted in favor of a plan to delete Standard 306 and fold it into Standard 105, which deals with substantive changes in programs, Bill Adams, managing director of ABA accreditation and legal education, told the ABA Journal.

Also on Friday, the council addressed requests to suspend Standard 316, which requires at least 75% of a law school’s graduates pass a bar exam within two years. Until 2019, law schools had five years to meet the standard, with various exceptions. The new version took effect for this year, and it focuses on 2017 graduates.

Diane Bosse, chair of the council, said the council understands law schools’ concerns about what will happen with the July bar exam, given the coronavirus pandemic. However, the 2017 graduates who will determine law schools’ compliance with Standard 316 this year are not directly impacted by the ongoing bar exam issues.

“We do understand the impact of this crisis, and that the bar exam this summer will be a factor. We will certainly consider that when we look at the passing rate of the graduating class of 2018 and beyond,” said Bosse, a Buffalo, New York, lawyer who is a special counsel at Hurwitz & Fine.

Some have said no law school was ever out of compliance with the old version of Standard 316. In March it appeared that 11 law schools had class of 2017 pass rates below 75%.

According to a June 2019 managing director’s guidance memo, law schools with two-year bar pass rates below 75% could submit to the council reasons why, and the council was scheduled to review the communications in closed session at Friday’s meeting.

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