Lost Track of the Painfully Slow ABA Comprehensive Accreditation Review? ALERT – this week’s meeting is a HOT one!

In September of 2008, the ABA Council of the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar (Council) initiated a Comprehensive Review of law school accreditation standards charging the Standards Review Committee (SRC) of the Section to engage in a two year review.  (Yup, it was supposed to be two years!) Back then, although the spiraling costs of legal education and increases in law student debt were of concern to many readers of this site, potential students were still applying to law schools in great numbers. Institutions had not yet experienced the current economic free fall and, hence, many legal educators tried to forestall the need for dramatic change.

Since 2008, much has changed.  As the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) notes in its latest comment to the SRC proposed revisions,

If clouds were gathering when the review began, the storm has now broken and lashes legal education. The need to better prepare students for practice is urgent and we cannot continue as we were.

And yet, the comprehensive review process has continued to chug along amidst the ups and downs of calls for reform of legal education and the transition from one roster of Standard Review Committee (SRC) members to another without clearly articulating any standards which directly respond to the calls or need. It also has continued to tinker with the standards without explicit connection with the newly formed taskforce on The Future of Legal Education.

This weekend, the SRC will meet again in Chicago on July 12 and 13. The Committee agenda focuses on issues concerning Faculty, Curriculum and Bar Passage. If you want to get a sense of the prior discussions, you can view the material prepared for this weekend’s meeting here, which includes an agenda, the minutes of the April SRC meeting, and current drafts of the proposed standards.

I want to call our readers attention to a few important issues. First, the Chair of the SRC , former Dean and Professor Jeff Lewis, told the Council that his committee would be finished with their work on Chapters 3 (Program of Legal Education) and 4 (The Faculty) at this July meeting. (FYI – once the SRC finishes its deliberations on a particular chapter of the standards, it sends its proposal to the Council which can amend it before sending it out for notice and comment before final adoption.) Thus, we should pay close attention to the current proposed revisions concerning those chapters and the outcome of this weekend’s meeting. Since Chapters 3 and 4 involve who will be teaching and what will be required to be taught, these revisions have the potential to redeem and re-invent legal education, and to encourage better preparation of students for the new global economy. Unfortunately, this weekend, the SRC may simply end up affirming the old status quo in new language and, sadly, even turn back the clock two decades on the status of clinical faculty.

With respect to Chapter 3 and the Program of Legal Education, the current SRC proposed revisions fail to include an expanded and updated vision of legal education. For example, the draft fails to consider the kind of innovative changes demanded by the profession, such as the recent call by the California State Bar Task Force on Admissions for pre-admissions practical skills training (see earlier post here), as well as the call by the Clinical Legal Education Association for the Council to expand accreditation requirements to include 15 credits in experiential learning, with at least one required law clinic or externship (see post on request here). CLEA’s request also compared the experiential requirements for other professional schools (from a 1/4 to  1/2 ratio) to legal education’s negligible 1:83 ratio. (You can find all of CLEA’s comments here.)

With respect to Chapter 4, four alternative draft proposals addressing tenure and security of position have been submitted to the Committee. It is unclear from my reading of the April minutes whether the SRC will make a recommendation or send up competing proposals. The proposals include different language and standards with respect to “competence,” “attracting and retaining,” “academic freedom,” “governance rights,” and tenure and/or security of position for faculty and, in particular,  clinical and lawyering faculty.  It is worth a look at CLEA’s multiple comments on these drafts (here and here). The SRC should pay closer attention to the profession and society’s call for better professional preparation of law students and avoid instituting standards which devalue the very educators who engage in the professional formation of law students.

Finally, the joint comments on Standard 315 submitted by the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) and CLEA detail cogent concerns about the proposed bar passage revisions including the imposition of a flat nationwide rate and increases to the ultimate standard without study of the consequences for diversity in our law schools. This latter issue could haunt us for many years into the future and diminish our profession’s continued ability to claim its civic nature and justice orientation. (see earlier post on National Law Journal article). Notably, there was a groundswell of opposition to the proposed revisions from minority bar associations and minority members of Congress who filed comments with the Standards Review Committee.

Priorities everywhere have changed since 2008 and the SRC process should reflect the new normal. Hopefully this weekend, the SRC deliberations will move beyond the traditional status quo and demonstrate an understanding of the changes needed to redeem legal education.

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