Law Schools

ABA Committee Members Show No Inclination to Start Over on Accreditation Standards Review

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A request that an ABA committee put a hold on its review of law school accreditation standards to consider the broader ramifications of its efforts on the future of legal education did not get much of a response.

The Association of American Law Schools made the request at a public hearing Saturday before the ABA Section of Legal Education’s Standards Review Committee, which is meeting in Chicago this weekend to work on several draft chapters of the proposed new standards. Some of the initial recommendations have been controversial.

AALS President Michael Olivas asked the committee to reject any proposed changes that would weaken, rather than strengthen, legal education; to initiate a process that would allow “important constituencies” to understand and debate the proposals; and to undertake an independent, fact-based study of the actual cost drivers in legal education and their relationship to the accreditation process.

“Those who seek to alter the fundamental assumptions underlying accreditation and its role in the system of legal education should bear the burden of justifying that need to the legal education community and all those who rely on the high quality of American legal education,” Olivas said at the hearing.

Olivas noted some specific objections in a letter (PDF posted by TaxProf Blog) he sent to Hulett “Bucky” Askew, the ABA’s consultant on legal education, earlier this week. Specifically, the letter cites a proposed reduction in the “requirements for full-time, committed faculty,” among other issues, as a signpost pointing toward a possible scenario in which “an open access bar review course could be accredited as a law school if it also offered lectures about online research and traditional lawyer values, had student papers graded by people who had never met the students, and assigned each student to one field placement based ‘course,’ taught and supervised by an adjunct.”

In the letter, Olivas took issue with the current comment process, which solicits feedback on individual proposals but not on the combined effect of the proposals. “We therefore ask … that the larger vision that animates these proposals can be meaningfully debated,” he wrote. Olivas also cited in the letter a General Accounting Office report (PDF) that suggested that current accreditation standards might not be the the primary drivers of the increased costs of legal education as one reason for an independent study to be undertaken.

Committee members didn’t respond directly to the association’s request. But one member of the committee—Loyola University-Chicago law school dean David Yellen—urged Olivas to “try a little harder” in the future to avoid mischaracterizing the committee’s actions.

Yellen cited Olivas’ contention that the committee had not given any thought to the philosophy underlying the standards and his claim that the committee had not engaged in a dialogue over the standards with other constituencies.

“Disagreement is great, but I urge you to adopt a different spirit than what is sometimes reflected in this letter,” Yellen said.

Olivas said the association doesn’t believe what the committee is doing constitutes a dialogue. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree,” he said.

Committee chair Donald J. Polden, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law, said later he was both surprised and disappointed by the tenor of Olivas’ letter. He said the committee, which has been working on the standards for 2½ years, has heard very little from the AALS until now.

Polden also said he hadn’t heard anything that would persuade him the committee should stop what it’s doing and start over.

“I’m just one vote,” he said, “but as far as I’m concerned, they haven’t made the case.”

Prior coverage: “Hot Topics on ABA Meeting Agenda: Post-Law-School Jobs Data; ‘Revolutionary’ Legal Ed Changes?”

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