Budget Law Schools Buck Status Quo

Both low-budget and traditional law schools are questioning the American Bar Association's accredidation standards: Are they good-education guarantees or straightjacket rules?

THE Massachusetts School of Law makes a point of being bare bones. Located in a three-story brick office built as part of an industrial park that failed, its classrooms and library are stark and modern.

A pile of broken chairs crowd one corner of the half-story library. A room full of computers connecting students with on-line legal reference books on-line replaces the floors of hard-bound volumes of more traditional schools.

All-in-all, MSL doesn't look revolutionary. But that's exactly what it is - a school that is rocking the US legal education establishment to its ivy-clad foundation.

Seventeen months ago, MSL dean Lawrence Velvel sued the powerful American Bar Association for antitrust violations after it denied his school's accreditation. He maintains that a ``cartel'' of legal insiders requires useless standards that drive law-school prices sky high and quash educational innovation.

If nothing else, his charges have sparked a spate of soul-searching in the US legal community.

``We're the most serious imaginable threat to [the ABA],'' Velvel says. ``People will start going to good, cheap schools and the whole system of schools will face possible collapse if schools like ours can get a foothold in education.''

The ABA functions as a monopoly because in 42 states in the US, a law student must have graduated from an ABA-accredited school in order to take the bar exam. The ABA is quick to point out that a Department of Education investigation of their accreditation practices - conducted in December 1994 - went largely nowhere and that the ABA has filed a motion to dismiss the antitrust case.

Inevitable change

But even James Halverson, member of the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, admits change in the ABA accreditation process is inevitable. Indeed, changes have already begun.

This month at its biannual meeting, the ABA removed two accreditation standards, including one regulating professor salary level (considered the most grievous antitrust violation); there was also talk about significant changes in the library standards.

A Justice Department investigation - which grew out of MSL's antitrust suit and is expected to recommend substantive reforms - is continuing. And the Department of Education has asked for two interim reports on how the ABA would comply with its suggestions. If the association has not complied by 1997, when ABA accrediting will be up for renewal, the Department of Education could deny accreditation privileges to them.

Perhaps most telling of the legal community's mini-revolution is the criticism launched by the ABA's own member law schools.

``The ABA needs to clean up its act, and stop micromanaging,'' says Colin Diver, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. ``[They] are not regulating the content of education.''

Mr. Diver, Ronald Cass of Boston University Law School, and 12 other deans last April sent a letter to the heads of the Association of American Law Schools and the ABA's Section on Legal Education, which oversees accreditation, charging that ``the current process [is] overly intrusive, inflexible, concerned with details not relevant to school quality (perhaps even at odds with maintaining quality), and terribly costly in administrative time as well as actual dollar costs to schools.''

The charges are hauntingly similar to those made by Massachusettes School of Law dean Velvel. Velvel maintains that the ABA standards, which monitor details such as the amount of square feet in a law school's placement office and ratio of fulltime professors to students, discriminate against certain kinds of students.

Velvel says his school tries to cut costs to attract nontraditional law students such as minorities and women. Providing a legal education for them will, in turn, supply sorely needed representation for the lower classes, he reasons. MSL charges $9,000 a year compared with $16,000 for an average law school in New England or $50,000 for an Ivy League school.

But even though law school deans from California to Arkansas decry the ABA's stringent regulation, few are willing to say the ABA should have accredited MSL.

``I just don't have enough information to say whether it should be accredited or not,'' Cass says. ``Are we talking about a school that's got enough problems that it shouldn't be on the road, or one without a lot of bells and whistles?''

For most, criticism of the ABA's accreditation process derives from a sense that the institution is not responding satisfactorily to changes in the legal community.

Over the last 20 years, the number of lawyers in the US has doubled. Increasingly, law is a more specialized profession with new areas of business and international law. Is it enough to teach the rhetoric of law, Cass asks, or is a greater balance between teaching skills and theory needed?

`Cookie cutters'

And today, there is a huge influx of nontraditional students, according to Howard Eisenberg, dean of the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, which is seen as a ``bargain'' law school.

Many women enroll there, seeking careers later in life. ``These people are just going to fall between the cracks,'' he says, if the ABA continues to follow its ``cookie-cutter'' accreditation.

Whatever the outcome of MSL's antitrust suit, the debate over the ABA's role will prove to be a lively one. ``There is a very widespread consensus that the accreditation is out of kilter and in need of change,'' says Diver. ``I think you'll see new standards very soon.''

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