American Bar Association in Chicago.

 

The American Bar Association has moved to withdraw its stamp of approval from a fully accredited law school—apparently the first time it has done so.

Arizona Summit Law School will lose its accreditation unless it successfully appeals a decision by the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar to withdraw the Phoenix school’s accreditation due to a variety of shortcomings related to its admissions and educational program. The school has until June 21 to file a “teach out plan,” with the ABA to lay out an orderly way to cease operations, although that deadline may be pushed back in the event of an appeal. The ABA announced the decision June 8.

Arizona Summit President Donald Lively said Monday that the school plans to appeal the decision. He pointed to rising Law School Admission Test scores of incoming students as evidence that the school has taken steps to improve since being placed on probation more than a year ago.

“Regardless of what anyone thinks about our school—and there is an abundance of misinformation—there is a serious due process problem with accreditation criteria that are vague, indeterminate, and incubators of double standards,” Lively said. “If we are not given the time for the changes we have made to show their impact upon first-time bar pass scores, that is unfortunate to say the least.”

But Arizona Summit was given more than a year to come into compliance with the ABA’s law school accreditation standards after it was put on probation in March 2017 for falling short of various requirements, according to a prepared statement from Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education.

“When the Council or the Accreditation Committee concludes that a law school is operating out of compliance with a standard, the school is given time to act and demonstrate that it is back in compliance,” he said. “These opportunities were afforded Arizona Summit Law School.”

The school has been out of compliance with several standards for more than two years, Currier said.


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The ABA council voted to pull Arizona Summit’s accreditation following a hearing on May 10, according to Currier. That same day of the hearing, InfiLaw Corp.—which owns the for-profit Arizona Summit, Florida Coastal School of Law, and the now closed Charlotte School of Law—filed the first of three federal lawsuits challenging the ABA’s law school accreditation process and sanctions it imposed on its schools.

An InfiLaw spokeswoman said Monday that the first lawsuit, brought by Florida Coastal, was filed before the Arizona hearing took place. Over the next two weeks, InfiLaw sued on behalf of Charlotte and Arizona Summit, arguing that the ABA’s accreditation standards are too vague and that its enforcement is uneven across schools.

Losing ABA accreditation would likely be a deadly blow to the long-struggling school. Having a J.D. from an ABA-accredited law school is a requirement to sit for the Arizona bar exam and losing accreditation could prevent students from accessing federal student loans.

The decision to pull Arizona Summit’s accreditation is the boldest move yet amid the ABA’s two-year-old crackdown on underperforming law schools. It has warned at least 10 schools of non-compliance with its law school standards, but Arizona Summit is the first to see its accreditation withdrawn. The other schools either came back into compliance, or still have time to do so.

The ABA has been accrediting law schools since the 1920s but this is believed to be the first time a law school involuntarily saw its accreditation revoked. (Several law schools closed voluntarily after running into accreditation problems.)

The University of LaVerne College of Law lost its provisional accreditation in 2011 due to low bar pass rates, but it regained provisional status the following year and achieved full accreditation in 2016.

Should Arizona close as a result of losing its accreditation, it would become the fifth law campus to shutter or announce plans to close since the spring of 2017. The school has faced myriad problems in recent years.

Enrollment plummeted from nearly 1,000 students in 2011 to 200 last fall, according to data from the ABA. In 2010, 78 percent of the school’s first-time takers passed the Arizona bar exam. By February 2018, just 20 percent of Arizona Summit graduates passed the bar exam. The pass rate was also 20 percent for the previous exam in July 2017.

Arizona had the second lowest “ultimate bar pass rate” of all ABA’ accredited law schools, according to data released by the ABA in March. The ultimate bar pass rate refers to the percentage of a school graduates who passed the bar within two years of graduating, and Arizona Summit came in at 60 percent.

The ABA first placed Arizona Summit of Probation in March 2017, saying it was out of compliance with rules requiring schools to admit only students who “appear capable” of graduating and passing the bar, as well its bar pass rate requirement and rules pertaining to the rigor of the school’s educational program.

Lively, the school’s president, founded Arizona Summit in 2005, then called Phoenix School of Law, and the school won ABA accreditation two years later. Lively has defended the school from critics, saying it has a mission of providing access to the legal profession to diverse students who are underrepresented in the law.