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

“When we look at these low-performing schools, you guys are doing absolutely nothing.”

So said a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity last June. (I wrote about the painful session in August.) The question on the table was whether the American Bar Association should lose its power to accredit law schools. The ABA leaders on the receiving end of that stinging rebuke had expected routine approval. What they got instead was a three-hour thrashing.

The ABA beat back the committee’s recommendation of a 12-month suspension of its accreditation power. And it learned nothing from the episode. That became apparent in October, when the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar recommended a rule change that it thought was monumental. It’s actually far too little coming far too late.

The new rule would require at least 75 percent of a law school’s graduates to pass a state bar exam within two years of receiving their degrees. The current standard requires a 75 percent pass rate within five years. Since 2000, only four law schools have faced difficulty under the current standard, and all were restored to full accreditation.

Disaster Looming

The Department of Education’s heat directed at schools taking advantage of their students could cool significantly under President Donald Trump, who recently paid $25 million to settle former students’ fraud claims against Trump University. The troubling law school backstory is a less dramatic variation on the same theme.

Plummeting national bar passage rates coupled with growing student debt for degrees of dubious value are the culmination of a dysfunctional market in legal education. That dysfunction is taking a cruel toll on a generation vulnerable to exploitation by elders who know better. Sooner or later, we’ll all pay the price.

The ABA’s latest misfire toward a remedy misses the key point: Even passing the bar doesn’t mean getting a law job. Within 10 months of graduation, less than 60 percent of 2015 graduates obtained full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage. Compared with the class of 2014, the number of such positions declined by 10 percent (from 26,248 to 23,687). The total number of 2015 graduates: 40,000.

Students attending marginal schools bear the greatest burden. Their schools use a business model that relies on federal student loan dollars to fill classrooms. Because schools have no accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes, they are free to dip ever deeper into the well of unqualified applicants. Prospective employers have noticed.

Disaster for Many

The ABA’s persistent refusal to confront the employment rate problem brought the Department of Education into the picture. At the June hearing, committee members posed tough questions that ABA managing director Barry Currier had a tougher time answering. As some marginal schools received huge federal dollars, the committee noted, the vast majority of their graduates couldn’t get law jobs.

Now the ABA proposes tinkering at the edges. Even at that, according to the outrage generated from some inside the professorial ranks, you’d think that it was trying to do something truly revolutionary. Some educators complained that shortening the 75 percent bar passage rate period from five years to two would discourage schools from admitting minority candidates, thereby leading to a less diverse profession.

That’s a non sequitur. If an additional three years after graduation is needed for some graduates to pass the bar, whatever they’re learning during that postgraduate period can’t be coming from their former classrooms. And, of course, nothing in the ABA proposal solves the employment problem.

Disaster Rewards a Few

As educators rely on student debt to keep their law schools operating, they’re getting paid, regardless of how their graduates fare in the job market. That frames the issue with which the ABA should be grappling but continues to dismiss: Marginal law schools are unable to place most of their graduates in full-time long-term bar passage-required jobs.

Solving that problem requires schools to have financial skin in the game. Here’s one suggestion: tie the availability of a student’s federal loan dollars to a law school’s employment outcomes. That would create accountability that no dean or administrator currently possesses. And they sure don’t want it.

The ABA is institutionally incapable of embracing the change required to create a functional market in legal education. Vested interests are too embedded. The clout of the marginal schools is too great.

For example, the head of the ABA’s last “task force” on the chal­lenges of financing legal education was also serving as the chairman of the national policy board of the Infilaw consortium of for-profit law schools, including the Charlotte School of Law. In fact, Dennis W. Archer still chairs the Infilaw national policy board. On Nov. 15, Charlotte was the subject of a rare event: The ABA placed the school on probation because of its admissions practices. The ABA also ordered public disclosure of its bar passage rates.

But the ABA didn’t address the bigger problem with Charlotte that afflicts students at similar schools: dismal full-time long-term bar passage-required employment rates. Charlotte’s rate for the class of 2015 was 26 percent—down from 38 percent in 2012. Here’s the real kicker: From 2011 to 2015, the number of graduates at Charlotte increased from 97 to 456.

Growing supply in response to shrinking demand. That’s what happens when the people running law schools view students as revenue streams for which the schools will never have any financial accountability. The federal government backs the loans; educational debt survives personal bankruptcy; many in a generation of young would-be attorneys begin adulthood in a deep, six-figure financial hole.

Perhaps President-elect Trump will identify with the plight of the student-victims of this continuing disaster. Where would he be today if he had not been able to discharge his business loans through a string of bankruptcy filings? Not in the White House, that’s for sure.