This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Spring 2021 (Vol. 90, No. 1), pp. 86–88.
Welcome to a new column devoted to exploring topics especially for those new to bar admissions. As a new bar examiner, character and fitness committee member, or bar admission administrator—or a justice of the jurisdiction’s highest court newly appointed as liaison to a board of bar examiners—you will find that this column aims to provide information that might be helpful in your new role.
This inaugural column addresses the connection between bar admissions and the accreditation of law schools by a Section of the American Bar Association (ABA).
The ABA’s Connection to Bar Admissions
The ABA and Bar Admissions
Every jurisdiction’s bar admission rules address what type of legal education is required for admission to the bar in that jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions state that applicants must have obtained their legal education at particular types of law schools or law schools accredited by specific types of accrediting agencies. Other jurisdictions define various means of assessing an applicant’s legal education. But it is important to know that the highest courts of all jurisdictions recognize the JD degree from an ABA-approved law school as meeting the educational eligibility requirements for admission, and many jurisdictions limit eligibility for bar admission to graduates of ABA-approved schools.
The ABA is the largest voluntary association of attorneys and legal professionals in the world. It has over 35 sections focusing on different areas of the legal profession.
The Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (“the Section”)
This section, currently with 14,000 members, is the only section of the ABA involved with bar admissions. While its membership is generally composed of legal educators and bar examiners, membership is open to any ABA member with an interest in these areas.
The Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (“the Council”)
The Section’s 21-member Council is the ultimate decision-making body regarding law school accreditation. The Council is recognized by the US Department of Education (DOE) as the national accrediting agency for education programs leading to the JD degree. DOE regulations require that the accreditation function carried out by the Council is independent of the ABA’s governing body.
Who Serves on the Council?
The Council is made up of law school deans and faculty members, judges, practitioners, public members, and one law student. But according to DOE regulations, the law deans and faculty can make up no more than 50% of the membership of the Council. In the past 20 years, the members of the Council have often been current or former bar examiners or administrators.
Several former NCBE Board of Trustees chairs have served as chair of the Council, including Hon. Rebecca White Berch of Arizona, Diane F. Bosse of New York, Gregory G. Murphy of Montana, Jerome C. Hafter of Mississippi, and Beverly Tarpley of Texas. Former NCBE President Erica Moeser also served as chair of the Council. Judge Phyllis Thompson of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals is currently a member of the Council while also serving on the NCBE Board of Trustees.
What Is Accreditation?
The Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools1 (“the Standards”)
In its accreditation role, the Council ensures program quality and also collects and provides consumer information. The Council of the Section promulgates the Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools with which the ABA-approved law schools must comply. The Standards establish requirements for providing a sound program of legal education.
To become and remain accredited, a law school must be in compliance with each of the 54 “black letter” Standards covering the following topics:
- General purposes and practices (e.g., basic requirements for approval, provisional and full approval, and variances)
- Organization and administration (e.g., resources for the program, diversity and inclusion, and accommodation for individuals with disabilities)
- Program of legal education (e.g., learning outcomes, curriculum, academic standards, and bar passage)
- Faculty (e.g., qualifications, and size and responsibilities of full-time faculty)
- Admissions and student services (e.g., educational requirements, qualifications for admission to the bar, and required disclosures)
- Library and information resources (e.g., administration, services, and collection)
- Facilities, equipment, and technology
The Council’s law school approval process is a careful and comprehensive evaluation of a law school and its compliance with the Standards. Approved schools are inspected every 10 years by a Site Visit Team consisting of law school deans and faculty members, judges, librarians, and practicing lawyers. Bar examiners have often served on inspection teams and have added valuable insight into fact-finding about compliance with Standards involving academic support programs, public disclosure of information, bar passage issues, and other student-related matters.
The team prepares a fact-finding report about the law school’s programs and operation and submits the report to the Council, which makes all decisions regarding a law school’s compliance with the Standards. Any law school that fails to meet the Standards may lose accreditation.
In addition to the periodic site visits, each law school must file an Annual Questionnaire with the Council. The Questionnaire gathers data and narrative descriptions of law school operations involving student admissions, student attrition, budgets, teaching resources, graduation rates, bar exam passage, and much more. This Annual Questionnaire information is then published on each law school’s website, and the information about all accredited law schools is also compiled and published on the Council’s website.
How Is the Section Relevant to Bar Admissions?
The Section’s accreditation actions are relevant to bar examiners because all jurisdictions accept JD degrees from ABA-accredited law schools as sufficient for admission, along with other admission criteria. Also, many jurisdictions’ bar admission rules actually adopt ABA accreditation as their sole standard for legal education.
When the Standards are amended, so is the jurisdiction’s educational standard for bar admission. Bar examiners who closely follow changes in law school accreditation are able to fully appreciate the impact of their own jurisdiction’s legal education standard.
Changes to the Standards are not made quickly or without public notice. The Section Council submits proposed changes to the legal education community as well as to the bar admissions community and invites public comment. Bar examiners and bar admission administrators who submit written comments about proposed amendments to the Standards can influence decisions affecting law school accreditation.
One of the best ways for bar examiners, bar admission administrators, and liaison justices to understand the law school accreditation process, follow trends in modern legal education, and appreciate how the Standards affect the day-to-day operation of law schools is to contact the managing director’s office and volunteer to serve on law school site visit teams.
LEARN MORE ABOUT …
The ABA Section and the Standards:
- ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar: www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/
- Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/standards/
- Contacting the ABA Section and the managing director’s office: www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/about_us/
The accreditation and site evaluation process:
- “ABA Accreditation: A Symbol of Quality” (The Bar Examiner, June 2013, available at www.thebarexaminer.org)
Jurisdiction legal education requirements:
- Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2021, Domestic Legal Education, reports.ncbex.org/comp-guide
- The ABA uses the term “approval” to describe the accreditation process. (Go back)
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