The rule of unintended consequences is alive and well at the American Bar Association. At least, that’s what people who claim to be speaking on behalf of minority and low-income students believe.
As the academic year opens, law schools are facing tighter standards from the ABA, which changed its rules last winter. Schools whose graduates fail to meet the new criteria risk losing their accreditation. About 30 law schools are at risk, according to a study by Gary Rosin, professor at South Texas College of Law.
To boost their scores, these schools have ratcheted up admission standards and implemented study courses to help students pass the bar. Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, for example, will now look only at applicants above a certain LSAT score. But according to G. Kristian Miccio, an associate professor, this move will have the effect of eliminating some minority students’ access to law school. The LSAT scores of black applicants are, on average, 11 points lower than those of whites, according to Law School Admission Council, Inc., which administers the test.
The discussion over changes began in December 2006, when the ABA’s Council on Legal Education & Admissions, the group that approves schools, met with the U.S. Department of Education. Every five years, the council must seek renewal of its accrediting authority from the Education Department. As part of this process, the council explained that it generally approved schools where at least 60 percent of graduates pass the bar, or schools with a passage rate that is within 10 percentage points of the state average. The Education Department deemed these criteria too low and asked the council to require a universal bar passage rate of 75 percent.
That’s where the controversy began. A coalition of the Hispanic Bar Association, the National Bar Association, seven past ABA presidents, and several law school deans opposed the rule, arguing that it should include leeway for law schools that focus on minority and low-income students. The group threatened to challenge the proposal before the ABA’s house of delegates. Staunch ABA opponent Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, which gets its accreditation from the New England Bar Association, coauthored a book about the opposition, The Gathering Peasants Revolt in Legal Education.
The ABA studied these arguments, and revised its proposal. The new standard: At least 75 percent of a law school’s graduates must pass the bar exam in three of the past five years, or the passage rate can be within 15 percent of the state average. Schools that fail to meet the threshold can seek an extension.
According to Nancy Slonim, deputy director for policy communications at the ABA, the board added the necessary leeway while keeping standards high. How does the coalition feel? “We choked it down,” says dean John Nussbaumer of Thomas M. Cooley Law School.