The American Bar Association has disciplined two more law schools for violating its admission rules, continuing a recent crackdown on campuses it says are enrolling students who aren’t likely to graduate and pass the bar.
The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has voted to publicly censure Valparaiso University School of Law and place Charlotte Law School on probation for failing to comply with the accreditation requirements that schools “maintain sound admissions policies” and not “admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”
The ABA announced those decisions Tuesday after the schools had been formally notified of the council votes, which took place Oct. 21.
The council also concluded that Charlotte was out of compliance with the requirement that schools “maintain a rigorous program of legal education that prepares its students, upon graduation, for admission to the bar and for effective, ethical, and responsible participation as members of the legal profession.”
The ABA has now publicly sanctioned three law schools for violating admissions rules since August, unusual moves considering such actions historically are rare. Ave Maria School of Law is the other campus that has run afoul of the rules.
Both Charlotte and Valparaiso remain accredited by the ABA and have two years to come into compliance with the rules, said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. But the council’s action puts both schools on notice that they must improve the quality of their admitted classes and better prepare them for the bar exam, or risk losing accreditation, he said. The ABA examined the schools’ Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores and undergraduate grades of admitted students, bar pass rates and academic support programs when reaching its conclusions.
“The questions to the schools are: ‘What determinations are you making that give you confidence that the students you are admitting today—in light of your experience—are students who are capable of graduating from your program and passing the bar?’ ” Currier said Wednesday, after the council’s decision was made public.
The deans of both Valparaiso and Charlotte acknowledge in interviews Wednesday that their schools have struggled to recruit highly credentialed students and achieve high bar pass rates, but each said their campuses have already implemented changes to address those shortfalls and are making gains.
“Quite honestly, we really did not expect probation,” said Charlotte Law dean Jay Conison, noting that the school’s probation stems from issues first identified by the ABA in 2014. “Over the past couple of years we’ve been doing a lot to dramatically improve our admissions, bar prep and academic support.”
Similarly, Valparaiso Law dean Andrea Lyon said her school has been focused on boosting the quality of incoming students since 2013—the year ABA accreditors visited the school for a routine inspection and raised concerns over its admissions practices.
“We’ve made significant changes to respond to the current legal education climate already,” Lyon said, who accepted the deanship after the ABA initially found problems. “Our admissions practices are stricter and stronger, and have been since I got here.”
In June, the council placed Ave Maria on a remedial plan to ensure compliance with the same admissions standards Charlotte and Valparaiso are being disciplined for violating—an unusual step given that the ABA has traditionally addressed accreditation shortcomings by granting schools extensions and not publicly disclosing its concerns. That decision was made public in August.
The ABA came under criticism from the U.S. Department of Education this summer over what an advisory committee deemed to be lax oversight of law schools and scant enforcement of its rules. Last month, the council voted to adopt a stricter bar pass standard, which is meant to help ensure schools only admit students with a good chance of passing that all-important exam.
Currier denied that the disciplinary actions against Valparaiso and Charlotte came in response to pressure from the Department of Education to better police law schools.
Rather, Currier said the latest enforcement measures are an outgrowth of widespread changes buffeting legal education—namely the significant decline in applicants and students that began in 2010.
Schools that were just barely meeting the admissions and bar pass rules five years ago are in much greater danger of falling short today, given the declining size and quality of the national law school applicant pool, he said.
“As you take more and more students whose credentials are questionable, it may appear that instead of identifying the students who really deserve that chance, you’re just lowering your credentials because you need to fill the seats,” Currier said.
Lyon and Conison pointed to concrete improvements in the LSAT scores of their most recent classes as evidence that they are taking the ABA’s concerns seriously. The median LSAT score of Valparaiso’s fall 2016 class was 147, up from 144 in 2013, Lyon said. Similarly, the 25th percentile rose four points to 144 over that time period.
The school had to dramatically reduce the number of students it enrolled—and has shed more than a dozen faculty positions in the process—in order to realize those LSAT gains, Lyon said. Valparaiso enrolled 103 new students this fall, down from a high of 200. Putting more emphasis on LSAT scores has reduced the school’s ability to take chances on promising applicants who don’t have strong test scores, she said.
“Part of what Valparaiso is about is giving opportunity to diverse student groups, and that means we place less emphasis on the LSAT than, perhaps, some other places do,” she said. “The ABA tells us that they want us to have diversity—economic, racial, religious. At the same time, they’re telling us [to boost student credentials]. It gets complex.”
At Charlotte, which is one of three for-profit law schools owned by InfiLaw Corp., LSAT scores have also improved. The school’s 25th-percentile LSAT score rose two points to 142 for the fall incoming class, while the median ticked up one point over the past year. Administrators are aiming for further gains with the new class starting in January, Conison said. Charlotte offered bigger scholarships to high LSAT scorers this year, and created a special mentoring and academic enrichment program for them.
Conison acknowledged that the school still must improve its graduate bar pass rate. Its first-time pass rate in North Carolina was 45 percent for the July 2016 exam, which is down from 47 percent the previous year. The school has added a slew of initiatives, from a five-day, pre-orientation legal fundamentals program to six required credits of bar preparation, to address the weaknesses identified by the ABA.
“Our task is to look forward and continue on the path of improvement,” Conison said. “Obviously, we’re not happy with where we are. But we also have a lot of confidence that with the plans we’ve put in place, we’re going to be able to bring ourselves into compliance.”
Contact Karen Sloan at email@example.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ.
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