Law School Accreditation Raises Costs, Not Quality

If you want to get people yawning, bring up the subject of accreditation. It seems terribly dull, but can have serious consequences. I know, because for years I have been involved in a battle against the overly restrictive accreditation standards the American Bar Association imposes on law schools.

The American Bar Association accredits most, although not all of the law schools in the United States. Supposedly, ABA accreditation ensures high quality legal education. The sad truth, however, is that it mostly serves to drive up the cost of a legal education and keep down the number of people who can enter the profession. What it’s doing is good for lawyers already in practice, but bad for Americans who need legal help – especially poorer ones.

Overall, there are two main problems springing from ABA accreditation. One is the use of mandatory input rules. These mandatory, straitjacketing rules are unnecessary to good legal education and in many instances contravene it. Furthermore, by exclusionary admissions requirements and by necessitating high costs and high tuitions, the ABA excludes minorities, working class, and nearly all non-affluent people from legal education.

The other problem is the use of secret accreditation policies – often policies that make the mandatory input rules even more stringent than they appear on paper.

Let’s look first at the mandatory input rules. They cover
a wide range of subjects. They require law schools to have very large, very expensive full-time faculties. The standards accomplish that by requiring a very low full-time-faculty to student ratio (i.e., often ten or 15 students to one faculty member), by limiting who can qualify as a full-time faculty member for purposes of the ratio, and calculating the ratio in complicated ways that don’t even necessarily lead to small classes.

The upshot is that law schools are dissuaded from employing adjunct professors, even though they are often more knowledgeable about the law than full-time academics and are much less costly to employ. The ABA’s vision of an acceptable law school is one where the faculty is overwhelmingly composed of legal scholars, not persons knowledgeable about the practice of law. That makes law school a lot more expensive than it needs to be.

Another problem is that ABA’s rules are vaguely written. For example, they don’t expressly state a maximum number of hours a professor may teach per week, but the fuzzy “professional environment” standard could be used by the ABA to create trouble for schools that might want professors to concentrate “too much” on teaching rather than research.

Moreover, ABA rules require that law school facilities be elaborate. When Suffolk University was building a new law school 15 years ago, making the structure satisfactory drove the price up to $70 million. The ABA also demands large, expensive, hard-cover libraries, despite the fact that virtually everything students need is now available on-line.

The rules require that all law schools use the LSAT and take only applicants with scores the ABA deems acceptable. That greatly reduces the number of minority students allowed into law schools. The LSAT isn’t sacred. More students should be given the chance to prove themselves.

The kinds of input rules insisted upon by the ABA are no longer used by other professional-school accrediting bodies. To verify that, the Massachusetts School of Law read the rules of thirteen of these bodies, among them: The American Association of Colleges of Nursing; The Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education; The Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association; and The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. In every case, the accrediting body does not use input rules like the ABA’s and if it previously used them, it has ceased doing so.

That’s persuasive evidence that it’s a bad idea to measure educational effectiveness by just looking at a school’s inputs.

There is one ironic aspect to a comparison of other professional bodies with the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education. Some of the other bodies do have one important type of input rule: a rule requiring that students be given a certain number of course hours in clinical settings (called experientials) in which they learn how to practice the profession for which they’re being trained. That kind of input requirement is self-evidently desirable. But the ABA doesn’t require that law schools provide students with training in practical skills required by lawyers. It’s all right for students to graduate with only courses in “black letter law” but no experience in how to deal with real clients.

The other major problem is the use of secret accreditation policies by the ABA. The written rules are restrictive enough, but it has been revealed that the ABA’s accrediting body sometimes goes by far more onerous, secret ones. They cover such matters as the student-faculty ratio (schools are forced to have much smaller ratios than the printed rules say are permissible), physical facilities (which are required to be far grander than the written rules require), and hours of teaching (which are required to be lower for each professor than the written rules demand).

Whenever a government body becomes concerned over what the ABA’s accreditation Council is doing, the ABA elides the matter by saying it will appoint a committee to study accreditation. The appointed committee is always stacked with long-time actors in and supporters of ABA accreditation. As one would expect, the committee, after much huffing and puffing, finds that accreditation is just fine and recommends either no changes or only cosmetic ones.

The ABA’s input rules and its secret policies have had the most profound and, it is fair to say, antisocial effects. They have kept to a minimum the number of minorities, working class people and immigrants who are allowed into law schools and the legal profession. The ABA is able to impose its monopolistic rules and guild restrictions, even upon schools that would otherwise not wish to adhere to them, because it has persuaded the state supreme courts in about 45 states not to allow a school’s graduates to take the bar examination unless the school is accredited by the ABA.

Sorry if you’re yawning, but I believe this is a clear case where accreditation is important – not because it’s ensuring high quality but because it’s a barrier against greater efficiency and easier access for students.