Facts and figures about legal education are topics of discussion in the public and professional press like never before, at least in my professional lifetime: 203 ABA-approved law schools; 40,000 new 1L students or so this fall; students paying tuitions with sticker prices exceeding $50,000 per year; degrees take no fewer than 58,000 minutes and 24 months; law school debt, on average, is in the $125,000 range; 56 percent of graduates obtain full-time, long-term, J.D.-required jobs 9 months after graduation. And on it goes. Should there be fewer schools, fewer students, less work required for the J.D. degree, reduced cost to earn the degree, more skills training? We toss around numbers to make our points – sometimes these numbers are based on hard data and other times seemingly pulled out of a hat. But the numbers are used to drive and illustrate the points the writer or speaker wants to make.
Illustrated with some hard and soft numbers of my own, my point in this column is that the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar’s central role in the law school world and in these discussions and debates is largely made possible and driven by the good will and hard work of our volunteers. The value of the time and talent they give is underestimated and seldom proclaimed. I want to do that here. It’s a bit “wonky,” but stay with me.
Volunteers do the work of the Council and its key committees, fill site visit teams, and staff the Section’s other committees, task forces, and projects that provide programs and services to our members and to legal education and the bar admissions community:
Council and key committees: There are 80 to 90 people who serve on the Council, Accreditation Committee, Standards Review Committee, Data Policy and Collection Committee, and Bar Admissions Committee in any given year. They spend, in the aggregate, some 1,100 days in scheduled meetings of their groups. I would estimate that they spend an additional 6,000 person-hours preparing for these meetings or doing other committee-related work.
Site visit process: We annually recruit more than 300 people to serve as site visitors. The visits might be the regular sabbatical site visit to an approved school, visits to schools that are provisionally approved or seeking approval, visits to law school programs located outside the United States, or special fact-finding visits directed by the Accreditation Committee or in response to a school request for acquiescence in a major change in its program. These 300 individuals give another 1,100-plus person-days for these visits. By my estimate, they invest an additional 2,500 to 3,000 person-hours in pre-visit preparation and post-visit report writing.
Additional committee, task force, and special project work: The number of people and the amount of time spent here varies, but whether one is talking about serving on committees that plan and execute Section conferences, or work on substantial projects like the recently completed Curriculum Survey, certainly an additional 2,500 or so volunteer hours are spent in these endeavors each year.
All of this adds up to 25,000 to 30,000 hours per year of volunteer time from legal educators, lawyers, judges, and the public members who are active in our process. You can apply your own multiplier to get an estimate of the monetary value of this time, but it is unquestionably in the multiple millions of dollars per year.
I draw a few conclusions from this data. First, the law school accreditation process is essentially a volunteer process. All of us in legal education and the profession should remember to acknowledge and thank them for their service. Certainly, the staff is grateful to each of them. Second, the fact that we have so many non-academics (lawyers, judges, public members) participating in the process undercuts the notion that the ABA law school approval/accreditation process has been captured by and is controlled by academics. Third, legal education would be much more expensive if we had to pay for this time. Finally and importantly, the amount of time invested is staggering. On the one hand, I suppose we should not be too surprised. Legal education is a substantial, multi-billion dollar enterprise and important undertaking that serves more than 140,000 students and is at the foundation of our legal system. On the other hand, we need to keep looking for ways to effectively streamline and improve our processes, both to reduce the amount of time that the system requires and to maximize our chances to continue to attract outstanding individuals to be interested in what we do.
This brings me to a different point about the effectiveness and efficiency of our process. State supreme courts and their bar admissions processes have long-relied on the ABA law school approval/accreditation process to adopt and enforce appropriate standards for legal education. A J.D. degree from an ABA-approved school is accepted in every state as satisfying the educational requirements that a person must meet to sit for the bar exam in that state. Schools and law students rely on the transportability of the ABA-approved J.D. degree. No state currently has a structure that would allow it to effectively review law schools. And currently no state bar admissions process pays anything to support the accreditation process. That bill is footed by the schools and the ABA. Our process can always be better, but it is a great value for the amount of money invested in it and leverages the time and talent of the volunteers who support it.
As I often say, if our process did not exist, someone would invent it. Without it, each state would have to adopt legal education standards and assess whether each law school meets those standards. Schools would have to track the rules of many, if not all, states. If each school and each jurisdiction simply had to employ one professional and one assistant to manage this work, provide space and support for those people, and each state had to create a committee to adopt rules and review law schools’ compliance with those rules, the cost, at a minimum would likely be millions of dollars per year, double or triple the cost of the current structure. These would be increased costs for schools and new costs for the bar admissions offices around the country.
Again, this is not to say that our process cannot be more attuned to the current environment and our Standards more sharply focused on the education and training that the J.D. degree should represent (and less focused on tangential matters). It is also not to say that we cannot operate more effectively and efficiently. But, I suggest that all of us with a stake in legal education should devote our efforts to improving the process that we have.
Here’s to all of you who have been volunteers in our process and to recruiting many new volunteers who will help us work toward a more effective and efficient regulatory process going forward. We cannot do it without you.