The Association of American Law Schools is not pleased with the American Bar Association’s effort to update its law school accreditation standards, and has asked that the review be put on hold to allow for a broader debate about the purpose and vision of accreditation.

AALS President Michael Olivas sent a letter to ABA officials this week requesting that its Standards Review Committee reject proposals that he fears would “weaken” legal education. He asked the committee to allow time for “important constituencies” to understand and debate the proposals. Additionally, he asked that the commission undertake an “independent, fact-based study of the actual cost drivers in legal education, and their relationship with the accreditation process.”

In an interview on March 30, Olivas said that the committee is prioritizing cost-cutting and efficiency over the quality of legal education, and that individual proposed changes are not being considered in the larger context.

“Our letter says that they need to step back and look at this from 30,000 feet,” Olivas said. “There’s just way too many moving parts, and there’s been no serious opportunity for anybody to comment on the process to the committee. There are complex, interlocking issues, and this process doesn’t allow the committee to see the interaction of all the individual parts.”

Committee Chairman Donald Polden, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law, referred questions about the AALS letter to Hulett “Bucky” Askew, the top administrator in the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. However, Polden did take exception to the charge that the committee has not been open or receptive to feedback.

“In any event, after 2 1/2 years of working on the comprehensive review in a highly transparent manner, I have some definite thoughts about the AALS’ recent request,” he said, declining to comment further.

Askew said that putting the review process on hold would be problematic.

“We’re 2 1/2 years into this and we have a mandate to do a comprehensive review every five years,” Askew said. “To stop it now and start all over again with a large public process — which you can see from our Web site we’ve already had — would build in a large delay.

“We would argue that we’ve had that public debate,” he said. “What’s the argument for going back and doing it all over again, when the committee has spent hundreds of hours and have pleaded that people submit comments?”

Still, delaying or restarting the review process is an option that the ABA’s Council on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar or the Standards Review Committee could consider, he said.

Each of the proposed changes to the accreditation standards has been posted on the ABA’s Web site, and the committee has encouraged interested parties to submit written comments, which it has posted online.

While the AALS wants the committee to step back and consider the larger goals of the accreditation and the review process, that’s a step the committee has already taken, Askew said. Before the committee started drafting proposals, it agreed in 2009 upon a set of principles and fundamental goals. They include assuring education quality, advancing the core mission of legal education, accountability for law schools, clarity and precision in the standards, and assessing program quality and student learning.

The AALS did not object or comment on those goals when they were established, Askew said. Since then, the AALS, the Clinical Legal Education Association and the Society of American Law Teachers have submitted comments that have become more critical over time.

None of the proposed standards have rankled educators more than changes to so-called “security of position” for faculty members. The committee has interpreted the existing standards to say that schools are not required to maintain tenure systems. Many educators insist that they do. The proposed standards would make clear that schools are not required to have tenure, and would remove certain contract requirements for nontenured faculty including clinicians.

That’s a prime example of how different proposed standards contradict each other, Olivas said. On one hand, the committee wants to make skills training a bigger part of law school curriculum — a change many legal educators support. At the same time, the committee has proposed weakening the position of the clinicians who provide that key training, he said.

Among the AALS’ other objections are that the committee has proposed removing a requirement that law schools consult the Law School Admission Test or “another valid and reliable admission test” in admissions decisions. Olivas said there have been no studies into what it would mean to move away from the LSAT.

The AALS also warned of proposals to reduce the financial protections law schools enjoy under the existing standards. For instance, the committee is considering dropping a requirement that “resources generated by a law school that is part of a university should be made available to the law school to maintain and enhance its program of legal education.” Without that standard, “the temptation to see law schools as even richer cash cows seems almost inevitable,” Olivas wrote.

The AALS objects to a proposal to increase the number of credit hours students can take via distance learning. “The proposed standards may well ease financial pain at law schools, but they may also lead to a ‘race to the bottom,’ as schools find they can reduce their offerings and services while still remaining accredited,” Olivas wrote.

Contrary to Olivas’ assertion in his letter, slashing law school operating costs is not the committee’s guiding principle, Askew said.

“I think the AALS’ perception is that we’re going too far and building in too much flexibility and eliminating mandated requirements,” he said. “The other side of it is that you need to provide law schools with the flexibility to adapt to a changing legal profession. That’s the balance that needs to be struck.”

The debate over the accreditation standards review will heat up this weekend, when the committee meets for two days in Chicago. The meeting will kick off with an open forum, during which interested parties may share their thoughts about the review process. Olivas said he is not pleased, however, with the 10-minute limit for speakers.

“The kabuki dance is one that all of us must participate in,” Olivas said.
Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com .