To protect their accreditation, law schools will be under pressure to more closely assess student achievement and provide students with more practical skills training under a slate of legal education reforms headed for final consideration by the American Bar Association House of Delegates.
Faculty tenure would remain sacrosanct, and students still would be barred from earning both money and course credit for externships under draft standards headed for a vote by the delegates on Aug. 11.
“If there was a theme to what the comprehensive review accomplished, it moved legal education into a 21st century model in two ways,” said Loyola University Chicago School of Law Dean David Yellen, who spent four years on the committee reviewing the standards. “One is by requiring schools to assess their achievement in student learning. The second is requiring more practical skills training.”
The ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, tasked by the U.S. Department of Education with overseeing law schools, began its comprehensive review of the standards in 2008. The idea was to bring them in line with evolving views about how best to prepare lawyers.
The review took twice as long as expected, in part because of factional infighting. But the vote by the ABA’s House of Delegates is likely to be the final step. The House may ask for a reconsideration of the rules, but the final decision rests with the Council of the Section of Legal Education, which has already signed off. The last time the standards were fully revised was 2003.
One of the most substantive proposed changes involves “student leaning outcomes.” Each law school would define its mission — what it is attempting to teach — and would measure how well it succeeds. Administrators would have plenty of ­leeway in defining their learning goals, but would now be judged less on the nuts-and-bolts of running a law school and more on results of those efforts.
“I think the change to outcomes measures presents law schools with a real opportunity to define and present themselves differently and set goals and benchmarks for themselves,” said Kate Kruse, director of clinics at Hamline University School of Law and past president of the Clinical Legal Education Association. “The door is really open to do things in a different way.”
Second, every law graduate would have to complete a minimum of six credits of “experiential learning” — clinics, externships or simulation courses. Kruse’s association unsuccessfully lobbied for 15 credits but has accepted the compromise. Right now, the requirement is a single hour’s credit.
Another key reform has already been implemented. Since 2013, law schools have disclosed on their websites detailed consumer information, including graduate employment rates, scholarship retention and tuition costs. Several law schools had been caught falsifying admissions data, and schools’ self-reported employment data were viewed skeptically in many quarters.
The ABA would move away from hard-and-fast requirements about how law schools are staffed and laid out. For example, schools no longer would have to hire at least one full-time equivalent faculty member for every 30 students. The council reasoned that faculties have grown to the point that a minimum ratio is no longer necessary.
Similarly, each full-time faculty member would no longer be guaranteed a private office. Students no longer would be limited to 20 hours of work per week outside their studies. They could take up to 15 credit hours via the Internet — up from the existing 12. And they could satisfy an entire semester’s coursework in this way, rather than be limited to four hours at a time.
“On paper, I’d have to say that this is a pretty significant slate of changes,” said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director for accreditation and legal education. “Certainly there is much more substance and scope in this compared to the previous comprehensive review.”
Still, the review might be best remembered for what didn’t change. Take that tenure fight. The existing standard requires law schools to protect tenure, but other professional schools do not. Some law school administrators argued that they needed more flexibility in staffing in order to make a law degree most affordable. But a vocal cadre of professors insisted that tenure was indispensable to protect academic freedom; some argued tenure protection should instead be expanded to cover clinical faculty. Ultimately, the council could not reach a consensus.
“There are factions in legal education that want to see these rules changed, but no agreement,” Kruse said. “There isn’t a large enough contingent on either side to strengthen or eliminate them.”
Also debated, inconclusively, were bids to let law students earn both pay and academic credit for externships, and to drop the requirement that law schools rely on the LSAT. The council did vote, however, to let schools to fill up to 10 percent of their first-year classes with applicants who didn’t take the test but meet other criteria.
Attempts to beef up the bar-examination passage minimum also proved divisive. Supporters promoted the move as a consumer protection, but diversity advocates feared it would hurt schools with higher enrollment by minorities, who tend to score lower on standardized tests. The council stuck with the existing standard.
“This process is political in nature, and by that I mean there is no one dictating what happens. It’s democracy at work,” Yellen said. “That means it’s particularly hard to reach agreement on the hot-button issues.”
That said, Yellen saw these controversies as peripheral to the main problems: the rising cost of legal education, depressed job market and declining enrollment. And Kruse said the package should silence critics who claim the ABA’s standards stifle experimentation.
“I think the ABA was very responsive to criticism that it was micromanaging legal education,” she said. “The ABA is used as a whipping boy for standing in the way of innovation, but when you really break it down, I don’t think the ABA is that heavy-handed.”