Bucking the Bar's Benchmarks

Law schools challenge the standards for getting a seal of approval

If Shawn Landry could do it over again, he might not attend the upstart Massachusetts School of Law - though he says he got a great education at an even greater price.

He praises MSL for its professors' practical experience in court. He loved the small night classes and individual attention. He still owes $35,000 in loans, but that's only half what many of his friends racked up at other Massachusetts law schools. His one problem with MSL? It is not accredited by the American Bar Association. Without that ABA stamp of approval, Mr. Landry cannot take the Florida bar exam to become a practicing lawyer in the Sunshine State, where he and his family live. So he may move back to Massachusetts - one of only three states where new MSL graduates can take the state bar exam.

As in decades past, ABA accreditation is the crowning achievement of law schools. Attaining it requires close attention to such factors as faculty-student ratios and other minutiae like the number of seats available in the school law library. Without it, a law school's grads can't take the bar exam in most states.

Yet, in a remarkably swift turnaround, many schools now argue that "one-size-fits-all" ABA standards exclude innovative, low-cost law schools like MSL and actually hurt the quality of legal education in America. In the past four years, an increasingly noisy movement challenging ABA accreditation standards has grown far beyond the gadfly Massachusetts School of Law to include blue-chip institutions.

Debate has now reached the US Department of Education, and the ABA faces possible loss of federal recognition as an accrediting body. Much hangs on how the department and its advisory bodies receive a key ABA report due Sept. 1. Even if the ABA retains federal recognition, the challenge may profoundly change accrediting rules.

How the ABA got into such hot water is partly the story of a David-and-Goliath encounter. It is also the story of an organization that managed to alienate a key constituency - the deans of many ABA-accredited law schools.

There are 182 ABA-accredited law schools and more than 40 other law schools - including MSL - that are not ABA-accredited. Only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont permit MSL grads to take the bar exam immediately upon graduation. Graduates of ABA accredited schools may take a bar exam in any state.

That's not fair, says MSL Dean Lawrence Velvel. ABA rules, geared to big schools, have helped boost the average cost of a legal education to $60,000, he and others say.

Of course, Mr. Velvel's 10-year-old school has already flouted many of the ABA's most cherished rules to keep tuition at just $10,800 a year. Its 60,000-volume library is less than half the ABA-prescribed size - though MSL argues everything students need is online. The school has no campus - just a modern (if Spartan) office building in Andover, Mass. The ABA cited it for an "inadequate physical plant," Velvel says. Massachusetts School of Law also violates another rule by using practicing lawyers as part-time professors to teach law from a "clinical" rather than a theoretical basis. Its faculty does a lot of administrative work, something else the ABA cited in rejecting the school in 1993.

Breaking such archaic rules is the only way to make law school affordable to low-income students, Velvel says. "We'd like to be judged by the quality and ability of the lawyers we educate." he says.

MSL's results, he says, speak for themselves. So far, 89 percent of all MSL graduates have passed the Massachusetts bar exam. Its graduates are rarely hired at big Boston law firms. Most practice law in their home communities.

The ABA is hanging onto costly accreditation standards, like those that require lots of full-time faculty, because they are "afraid of the impact of competition on the wages of law professors," Velvel says. "They're afraid of opening the floodgates."

ABA officials not only deny but express contempt for such views. "I could not express for you in words what I think of that argument," says Darryl DePriest, ABA general counsel. "There is no competent evidence I have seen that the accreditation process of the ABA is driving up the cost of law school. We've looked at this issue and we've seen nothing that supports it."

For five years, Velvel and MSL fought the ABA in court after being rejected - to no avail. Since then, MSL has tried with minimal success to persuade individual states to let its grads take the bar. At every turn, the ABA has beaten MSL, which has just 425 students.

But to the consternation and surprise of ABA officials, MSL's basic argument is rapidly catching fire where it counts.

In 1994, deans from 14 top ABA-accredited schools wrote other law-school deans citing an accreditation process that was "overly intrusive, inflexible, concerned with details not relevant to school quality." Soon after, the disgruntled deans formed the American Law Deans Association, whose membership is about 120. Together, the deans have suggested big changes in accrediting rules.

Ronald Cass is dean of Boston University Law School and immediate past president of the Law Deans Association. "I'd like to see the ABA told in no uncertain terms to scale back," Dr. Cass says. "They need to make it easy to distinguish between schools that are achieving educational quality instead of focusing on dollars spent on buildings."

When it was just MSL making noise, official concern in Washington was minimal. But that has changed since the law deans weighed in. On June 8, the ABA received a pointed warning from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NAC), the 15-member body overseeing educational-accrediting agencies. It ruled that unless the ABA can show by Sept. 1 that its accreditation practices are rapidly coming into compliance with federal law, the ABA risks "an enforcement action to limit, suspend, or terminate" its federal recognition as an accrediting body.

"We are agitated to say the least," says Thomas Salmon, a NAC board member and former governor of Vermont. "The idea that you can't become an accredited law school without having a mammoth law library - when every law school is going to have online access to legal opinions anyway - is crazy."

In a July 28 letter, Secretary of Education Richard Riley wrote James White, who heads the ABA's accrediting division, that: "I concur with all portions of the [NAC] recommendation." Ultimately, the secretary determines federal recognition.

The ABA appears to have been shocked into action. In its annual meeting Aug. 4, it voted to make unknown changes to its program. "We either are, or shortly will be, in compliance with the regulations and the Higher Education Act," Mr. White says. "We will demonstrate this to the secretary of Education."

Dr. Salmon of NAC is less certain. "The ABA has been out of compliance ... for years," he says. "They're going to have to finally put a stop to suffocating standards that spell a death knell for schools like MSL."

* Comments? claytonm@csps.com

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