American Bar Association in Chicago.
American Bar Association in Chicago. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

The American Bar Association’s governing body on Monday endorsed an extensive package of law school reforms designed to increase students’ clinical and distance-learning opportunities.

Standards for law schools would require students to take a minimum of six hours in a legal clinic or other “experiential” environment; encourage 50 hours of pro bono service; and allow students to take up to 15 credit hours of distance courses, up from 12. Students won’t be limited to 20 hours of outside work per week anymore.

To protect accreditation, law schools would have to shift toward assessments that focus on student outcomes—including bar-exam results and employment—rather than qualifications of incoming students or other factors.

“J.D. programs will remain a rigorous study of the law,” former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth McGregor assured the ABA House of Delegates, which voted on the reforms during the ABA’s annual meeting in Boston. “It will basically remain a three-year program.”

McGregor is a member of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which oversees law schools for the U.S. Department of Education. The section began its review of law school standards in 2008. The last time standards were revised was 2003.

While most of the changes were unanimously approved by voice vote, disagreement arose over two aspects of the reform package.

One was a provision requiring law schools to “demonstrate by concrete action a commitment to diversity and inclusion” in student admissions, faculty and staff. The wording specified only “gender, race and ethnicity” in defining diversity but several groups within the ABA wanted to add disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. of Ohio, chairman of the law school section, said those categories were not included because they raise issues of definition and privacy that need further study. The section and the objecting groups agreed that the diversity requirement should pass as is, with the promise of further study. “These issues will be reviewed in the future,” Oliver said.

The other contentious provision would have continued the long-standing prohibition on law schools granting credit for students’ field-placement programs when they are also compensated for the work. The ABA’s law student division wants to end the bar so that students will have more opportunities for paid work.

“These are tremendously difficult times for law students” in terms of the high cost of legal education, said Joseph Zeidner, a student at Drexel University School of Law.

But others defended the rule because of “the conflicts that could arise” if control over a student’s externship or other program were shared by the employer and the law school, said Pauline Schneider of Ballard Spahr, a member of the section.

“What happens when the boss comes in and says, ‘You need to work for the next 24 hours?’ ”—a request that might violate the law school’s standards, Schneider asked. “When we’re in law school, we should be there to learn.”

After extensive debate, a majority of the house voted to send the measure back to the section for further study—a temporary victory for law students and others who want to end the prohibition on paying for work that also earns credit.

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