The arm of the American Bar Association that oversees law schools is poised to make its biggest transformation in decades with a major reorganization aimed at saving money and increasing efficiency.
The plan calls for the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to dissolve two longstanding committees tasked with developing the rules governing law schools and with making accreditation recommendations for individual schools. The work of the disbanded accreditation committee and the standards review committee would be assumed by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar—an existing 21-member body that makes all final decisions on accreditation and law school standards.
The change will essentially halve the number of people involved in making law school accreditation decisions, and reduce the number of committee and council meetings from 15 or 16 per year to four.
The ABA’s House of Delegates is expected to approve the reorganization when it meets in Chicago on Aug. 6. The new structure would go into effect immediately.
The reorganization will save the legal education section “several hundred thousand dollars” annually, according to section manager Barry Currier. The ABA is under financial strain and the organization has reduced the legal education section’s monetary support in recent years. The section has also seen revenue from its law school members fall along with the recent decline in student enrollment.
In addition to saving money, proponents say the new structure will reduce the time it takes to identify and sanction law schools that run afoul of the ABA rules because the decisions will be made by a single body.
“The council will be able to act on major changes proposed by law schools in one step, rather than two (an [accreditation committee] recommendation and then council review of that recommendation), shortening the response time on proposals that, in many cases, are more time-sensitive than the current process can accommodate,” wrote council chair Maureen O’Rourke in a report to the ABA’s House of Delegates. “The restructuring will also allow the council to move more expeditiously in enforcing the standards when there are concerns that schools are not abiding by them.”
Under the existing section structure, the 19-member accreditation committee meets four or five times throughout the year to review law school site visits and make recommendations on accreditation decisions to the council, which has the final say. Dissolving the 13-member standards review committee, which issues recommendation to the council about the rules that govern law schools, will help council members better understand how those rules are working at the school level, O’Rourke wrote. Eliminating both committees will not only save money, but free up ABA staff members who now spend a lot of time preparing for committee meetings, according to a memo Currier circulated in June 2017, when he first proposed the reorganization.
The council initially approved the plan in November and held a public hearing in April, though it received no written comments or testimony on the proposal. It gave its final approval to the reorganization in May.
Law School Admission Council president Kellye Testy said the restructuring is a significant issue that has garnered little public attention to date.
“It’s a really important time in legal education to make sure we’re doing everything we can to ensure the value of the investment candidates make,” she said. “Whatever governance structure we have, we want to make sure it’s capable of assuring that balance.”
David Yellen, a former member of the Standards Review Committee and current president of Marist College, said the change would bring the ABA more in line with the structure of other educational accrediting bodies.
“The idea that there be one body that really is responsible for developing, implementing, and applying accreditation standards rather than these separate power bases, in effect, I think is a good thing,” he said. “I just would worry about the workload of the people who serve on [the council].”
Under the new structure, the council will continue to meet four times a year, but those meetings will be one day longer to accommodate the additional workload. (A large portion of council meetings are already devoted to accreditation matters, according to Currier’s memo.)
In order the reduce the amount of time the consolidated council spends on accreditation matters, the ABA will extend the periodic accreditation review process for schools from seven years to 10 years. “The council believes that these changes will shorten the decision-making timeline, eliminate redundancies, avoid the necessity for staff increases, reduce expenses, and, overall, improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the process,” O’Rourke wrote.