American Bar Association offices in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

 

The American Bar Association’s system for accrediting the nation’s law schools is one step closer to a major overhaul.

The ABA body that oversees accreditation decided last week to consider a detailed proposal to cut its costs, streamline operations and allow the organization to respond to problem schools faster.

The proposed reorganization comes as the ABA’s accrediting body, the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, is facing increased pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, which grants the ABA the authority to accredit law schools, and critics who say it has been lax on underperforming campuses. The section has responded in the past year by stepping up its enforcement efforts.

At the same time, the section is facing budgetary pressures due to a reduction in funds from the larger ABA and other factors, according to a “concept paper” for the restructuring proposal that the Council considered at its meeting in Portland, Oregon, June 2-3. The document did not specify the amount of any funding shortfall within the section, though the ABA’s Board of Governors in February approved cutting nearly $11 million from the entire organization’s operating budget for fiscal year 2018. ABA membership has been declining for years.

Under the concept paper submitted to the Council by Barry Currier, who runs the legal education section, the duties of the existing Standards Review Committee and the law school Accreditation Committee would be transferred to the 21-member Council—the body that has the final say on law school matters.

That change would reduce expenses by eliminating many committee meetings, free up ABA staff and give Council members a better understanding of the day-to-day operations of law school oversight because they would be more closely involved, according to the proposal submitted at last week’s meeting.

The Council decided last week to consider a more in-depth proposal at its meeting in August or in November.

The proposed reorganization represents a significant departure from the existing structure of the Section of Legal Education. Currently, the 17-member Standards Review Committee meets four or five times a year to review and propose changes to the ABA’s myriad law school standards, which are rules governing everything from how law schools admit students to the protections they must give faculty members. The Council must approve all of those proposed changes before they are final.

Similarly, the 19-member Accreditation Committee makes recommendations to the Council on accreditation matters, including bestowing new accreditation on schools, reaccrediting schools and withdrawing existing accreditation or placing law schools on probation for accreditation shortfalls.

Folding the work of those committees into the Council would increase its work load significantly.

“[The Council] agreed that there were good and substantial reasons to continue studying the matter and developing a formal proposal,” a summary of the meeting’s council actions stated.

An ABA spokesman did not comment further on the decision.

Karen Sloan contributed reporting to this story.