The American Bar Association has publicly disciplined 10 law schools since August 2016 for enrolling students that it says are unlikely to graduate and pass the bar—an unprecedented crackdown, given that such actions historically are rare.
The sanctions issued by the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar range from letters of noncompliance setting out remedial plans to censure to probation.
Based on a search of the public notices posted on its website, the ABA has found that the campuses named in the following paragraph have failed to comply with some or all of the accreditation requirements that schools: “maintain sound admissions policies;” “maintain a rigorous program of legal education that prepares its students, upon graduation, for admission to the bar and for effective, ethical, and responsible participation as members of the legal profession;” “provide academic support designed to afford students a reasonable opportunity to complete the program of legal education, graduate and become members of the legal profession;” and not “admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”
The schools are: Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix, Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida, Charlotte Law School (now closed), Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston and Valparaiso University Law School in Valparaiso, Indiana. Some schools have since been found to be in compliance, in whole or in part, and had the sanction removed.
Nearly half of these are controversial for-profit institutions: Arizona Summit, Charlotte, Florida Coastal and John Marshall, have been scrutinized for enrolling students who incur large amounts of student debt while failing to pass the bar and secure gainful employment in the legal profession.
A law school remains accredited by the ABA throughout this disciplinary process, said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. Depending on the type of discipline imposed, the schools have various opportunities to come into compliance with the rules, he said. The ABA examined the schools’ Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores and undergraduate grades of admitted students, bar passage rates and academic support programs when reaching its conclusions.
Currier attributed the disciplinary actions to widespread changes in legal education over the past seven or so years, namely the national decline in applicants. If schools were already challenged in meeting the ABA’s admissions standards in 2010, then they are even more so today in light of the declining number and quality of applicants, he said.
“It is logical to ask these schools to demonstrate that the students who are coming into their programs have a reasonable likelihood of success with academics and on the licensing or bar exam, and that the schools have programs to maximize the students’ likelihood of success,” Currier said in an email message.
“Given our current processes, some of the matters that have recently come to a head actually began some time ago as a result of changing market forces.”
Scott DeVito, dean of Florida Coastal, which last month received a letter of noncompliance, said the school has greatly increased its incoming credentials and is continuing to do so in the upcoming year, leaving DeVito, he wrote in an email, to “believe that Florida Coastal is currently fully compliant with” the standard governing admissions. In addition, DeVito noted, the school is compliant with the ABA’s bar passage rate standard, even though its pass rate on last summer’s Florida exam was 47.7 percent, according to the state’s Board of Bar Examiners.
ALM reached out to the deans of the law schools, with the exceptions of Valparaiso, which earlier this month had its sanction of public censure removed, and Charlotte, which has since closed. Four of the deans, including DeVito, provided comments.
Joan Bullock, dean of Thomas Jefferson, which last week was notified that the council voted earlier this month to place it on probation, said in a statement that the school has a “strong track record of producing successful graduates,” noting its more than 7,000 national and international alumni who currently practice law in a variety of settings.
“They are excellent contributors to the legal community and provide much-needed service to the community at large,” Bullock said. “While we are disappointed with the council’s decision, we are addressing the ABA’s concerns.”
Don Lively, dean of Arizona Summit, which was placed on probation in March, acknowledged that while the school’s recent bar passage rate has been “weak,” it has taken necessary steps to improve it.
“It also is worth noting that three out of every four students at our school eventually have passed a bar examination (and at times we have led a state that has two first-tier law schools) — despite having a significantly lower LSAT profile,” Lively wrote in an e-mail.
Kevin Cieply, president and dean of Ave Maria, said in an email that the council in March found the school in compliance with one of the admissions standards and that Cieply last week submitted a report to the ABA setting forth its case that it is now in compliance with the other standard it was found to have violated.