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ABA May Ditch Law School Student-to-Faculty Ratio Rule
The National Law Journal
The American Bar Association’s rules governing the size of law school faculties may soon be a thing of the past.
The ABA committee reviewing the organization’s accreditation standards has voted to do away with the rule establishing a minimum student-to-faculty ratio. The panel reasoned that determining the true size of a law school faculty is just too complicated, given the number of adjuncts and non-fulltime teachers.
Law schools would still have to have enough faculty members to carry out their mission and comply with all the other accreditation standards, said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director for accreditation and legal education. But schools no longer would need to annually ensure they have at least one fulltime faculty equivalent for every 30 students.
The existing standards hold that one faculty member for every 20 students or less is the ideal.
The decision was just one in a flurry of votes during a two-day meeting in Chicago on July 12 and 13. The committee has been reviewing the standards for five years, but had previously made few final recommendations.
Among its other decisions:
• The committee voted to require law students to complete at least six credit hours of experiential coursework—clinics, externships or simulation courses. That would be up from the existing one credit-hour requirement, but less than the 15 hours suggested by the Clinical Legal Education Association or the 15 hours being pursued by the State Bar of California.
• It adopted a new student-learning outcomes requirement. Law schools would have to establish a list of competencies that students must achieve and assess whether they are meeting those goals. This measure is intended to make schools look beyond bar-pass rates to determine whether they are meeting student needs. However, the recommended standard leaves law schools plenty of leeway in determining what the learning outcomes should be and how to assess them.
• The committee voted to increase the number of credits law students may receive from distance learning classes from 12 to 15 and eliminated the rule that students may take no more than four distance-learning credits per semester. Students could take a full semester of courses away from their home campus.
The committee opted not to take a specific position on the most heated dispute before it: Security of position for faculty members. Instead, the committee will send four options offering varying degrees of job protection to the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
None of the committee’s recommendations would be final until approved by the council, which is expected to consider the changes during its next meeting in August. Should the council sign off, the proposed revisions would be submitted for public comment and could be formally adopted as early as December.
ABA leaders are bracing for significant reaction regarding security of position—a matter that has divided those who argue tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom against others who believe law schools need more leeway to cut costs.
Option A would essentially keep the existing system in place: Tenure would be required for full-time doctrinal faculty and clinical professors would have job protections comparable to tenure.
Option B would require law schools to offer some form of security of position for all full-time faculty, but that system could fall short of tenure. Schools could offer different job protections for different categories of teachers, such as clinical professor and writing instructors. This option garnered the most support among committee members.
Option C would require some form of job protection—not necessarily tenure—with all types of faculty having the same protections.
Option D presents the largest departure form the current rules. Law schools would not have to offer a specific form of job protection, although they would still have to prove to the ABA that they could attract competent faculties.
The committee’s discussion of the four options was “full and robust,” Currier said, but members ultimately agreed that the council should see each one.
The committee delayed any decision about the much-discussed bar passage requirement. It is considering increasing the minimum bar passage rate from 75 of takers over five years to 80 percent of takers over two years.
That potential change has worried diversity advocates including members of minority bar associations who fear the move would dissuade law schools from accepting students with lower undergraduate grades and Law School Admission Test scores—shutting out a larger percentage of minority students, who on average score lower on standardized tests. Proponents believe the change would help ensure schools give students the support they need to pass the bar.
The details of the public comment process was still being hammered out. Those who wish to weigh in would have the opportunity to write to the council or appear at one or more public hearings, Currier said.
Kate Kruse, a clinical professor at Hamline University School of Law and president of clinical education advocacy organization, said that she hopes members of the council would pay close attention to the public comments.
“These decisions are so central to legal education, and there is not a good process for taking in these outside views while the committee is deliberating,” she said. Her organization’s many written comments rarely seemed to come up during the panel’s discussions, she said. “We feel like there are not adequate opportunities for stakeholders to be heard.”