Guide to Schools seeking ABA Approval

Schools Seeking ABA Approval

The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the accrediting agency for J.D. programs in the United States. This page contains important information for law schools contemplating an application for ABA approval.

Organizing and leading a law school through the ABA accreditation process is a substantial and serious undertaking. We strongly recommend that you take the time to review all of these materials. You might also find it useful to visit our offices in Chicago to discuss your plans with us.

The Law School Accreditation Process

The Role of the Section 

Under Title 34, Chapter VI, Part 602 of the Code of Federal Regulations, the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (the “Council”) is recognized by the United States Department of Education (ED) as the accrediting agency for programs that lead to the J.D. degree. In this function, the Council and the Section are separate and independent from the ABA, as required by ED regulations. Further, state bar admissions processes generally accept a degree from an ABA-approved law school as sufficient to meet the educational requirements that must be met to be eligible to sit for the jurisdiction’s bar exam and for admission to practice.

The Council promulgates the Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools with which law schools must comply to be ABA-approved. The Standards establish requirements for providing a sound program of legal education. The law school approval process established by the Council is designed to provide a careful and comprehensive evaluation of a law school and its compliance with the Standards.

The Council is comprised of 21 voting members, no more than 10 of whom may be law school deans or faculty members. Other members of the Council include judges, practicing attorneys, one law student, and at least three public members. By tradition, the Chair rotates among a judge, an academic, and a practicing lawyer.

The Office of the Managing Director of Accreditation and Legal Education at the American Bar Association administers the accreditation project. Administrative functions include, but are not limited to, overseeing the training and appointment of law school site evaluation teams, the collection of law school data in accordance with the Standards for Approval of Law Schools, and the dissemination of site team reports and other relevant accreditation materials to the Council. The Managing Director’s Office may also provide guidance on compliance with the Standards, although that guidance is not binding on decisions made by the Council.

Provisional Approval

The initial level of approval that the Council awards to a law school is provisional approval. Provisional approval is discussed in Standard 102. The process for obtaining provisional approval is set out in Rule 22 of the Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools.

Standard 102 states the Council shall grant provisional approval to a law school if at the time the law school seeks such approval it demonstrates that it has achieved substantial compliance with the Standards and presents a reliable plan for bringing the law school into full compliance with each of the Standards within three years of receiving provisional approval.

A law school may not apply for provisional approval until it has been in operation for one year. Law schools considering applying for provisional approval are strongly encouraged to contact the Managing Director’s Office well before the year in which the law school applies for provisional approval. The Managing Director or other senior staff members will meet with representatives of law schools seeking provisional approval and provide them with extensive information about the Standards for Approval of Law Schools, the Rules of Procedure, and the accreditation process.

A law school seeking provisional approval must notify the Managing Director’s Office no later than March 15 in the academic year prior to the academic year in which the law school wishes to apply for provisional approval. The application for provisional approval must include a feasibility study that evaluates the nature of the educational program and goals of the law school, the profile of the students who are likely to apply, and the resources necessary to create and sustain the law school, including relation to the resources of a parent institution, if any. The law school also completes an Annual Questionnaire and a self study (site evaluation questionnaire and law school assessment) that provide the information that a site evaluation team needs to ascertain the basic facts concerning the law school and its operation.

A site evaluation team will visit the law school and a site report is sent to the Council, which holds a hearing at which representatives of the law school applying for provisional approval appear.

A law school that applies for provisional approval must establish that it “is in substantial compliance with each of the Standards” and must present “a reliable plan for bringing the law school into full compliance with the Standards within three years after receiving provisional approval.” The burden is on the law school to establish that it fulfills these requirements. If the Council concludes that a law school is in substantial compliance with the Standards and that the law school has a reliable plan for coming into full compliance, the Council will grant provisional approval. If the Council concludes either that the law school is not in substantial compliance or does not have a reliable plan to come into full compliance in three years, it will deny the application for provisional approval.

If the decision of the Council is to grant provisional approval, that decision is final and effective immediately upon notice to the law school. If the decision of the Council is to deny provisional approval, the law school has the right of appeal to an Appeals Panel appointed annually by the Council.

From an accreditation perspective, a law school that is provisionally approved is entitled to all the rights of a fully approved law school. Similarly, from an ABA perspective, graduates of provisionally approved law schools are entitled to the same recognition that is accorded graduates of fully approved law schools.

Application for Provisional Approval

Rule 22 describes the components of an application for provisional approval. Rule 22(b)(3) calls for a law school seeking provisional approval to have completed a comprehensive feasibility study. This study will consider, among other things, how the law school will acquire the necessary resources to develop and maintain an institution of quality. It should demonstrate how the proposed law school could substantially comply with each of the Standards at the time of seeking provisional approval, and how the law school might thereafter fully comply with each of the Standards. This feasibility study should include consideration of the mission, goals and character of the proposed law school.

Feasibility Study

The feasibility study should address the context of and market to be served by the proposed new law school: the number, characteristics, and interests of the students who might apply; the availability of resources necessary to create and sustain the proposed law school; and the demand for law-trained individuals in the geographic area(s) in which the graduates of the proposed law school might be expected to pursue their careers. The feasibility study should address the law school’s potential applicant pool considering national trends and projections. This feasibility study should be completed prior to commencement of a program of instruction.

Estimated Costs

The costs of establishing and operating a law school that complies with the ABA Standards are substantial. The major capital expenditures involved in establishing a new law school are, of course, those for the law building and the library collection. Costs for a facility may vary, depending upon anticipated size of student body, the character of program, and local construction costs. Library costs are increasingly difficult to estimate. The Standards focus on “access to information,” which is likely to be a combination of print and electronic materials. As the format in which materials are provided change and evolve, it may impact the number and qualifications of library staff. Many new law schools find a library consultant to assist them in developing and executing a library plan.

Technology is another major necessary investment for a law school in the twenty-first century. This includes information technology (to permit students, faculty, and staff to access the wide range of law and law-related information available electronically), classroom technology (permitting the use of electronic resources in the classroom), and technology infrastructure, systems, and software to support other parts of the law program and operations.

The primary operating expenditures are those for personnel. Funds must be available for faculty, administrative and supporting services, research, travel, and secretarial assistance. Additional funds should be provided for student financial aid.

The process of establishing a law school or moving an existing law school toward ABA approval also requires the hiring of a dean and the undertaking of the feasibility study and self study. Standard 402 requires that a law school have a sufficient number of full-time faculty to enable the law school to operate in compliance with the Standards and carry out its program of legal education.

Self Study

The self study builds on the feasibility study. It is completed by the law school and should involve appropriate representatives of the constituencies of the law school. The self study should address evaluation of outputs in relation to expressed institutional objectives. Comparison should be made with available regional and national data. The diversity of the educational activity should be reviewed, showing how the law school proposes to offer a sound program of instruction in lawyering skills. It should demonstrate that the law school has sufficient financial resources to permit the development of the institution.

The self study should contain a completed site evaluation questionnaire and a law school assessment that includes the following: a statement of the law school’s mission and of its educational objectives in support of that mission; an evaluation of the educational quality of the law school’s program of legal education, including a description of the program’s strengths and weaknesses; and a description of the law school’s continuing efforts to improve the educational quality of its program.

A thoughtful and candid self study is essential to fully inform the site evaluation team prior to its visit. It will greatly assist the team in reporting the information that the Council needs to evaluate a law school’s application for provisional approval. The law school should devote substantial attention to the preparation of this important document.

Disclosures

It is the policy of the Council that an unapproved law school seeking or intending to seek Provisional Approval include the following language in its printed or electronic materials:

The law school is not currently approved by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association and makes no representation to any applicant that it will receive approval from the Council before the graduation of any matriculating student.

Standard 102(g) provides that a law school seeking provisional approval shall not delay conferring a J.D. degree upon a student in anticipation of obtaining approval.

Fees

It is the policy of the Council that all law schools applying for provisional approval be charged an application fee, which at the present time is $100,000 (see Schedule of Law School Fees). When a law school is in position to make formal application, a check for the application fee should be forwarded to the Managing Director’s office as part of the completed application. The check should be made payable to the American Bar Association.

Resources

Given the substantiality and complexity of the work required to move a law school through the ABA accreditation process, the law school might find it useful to visit the Managing Director’s office in Chicago. In addition, the office can conduct a pre-visit of your law school upon request. Finally, the Managing Director’s office conducts an annual site evaluators workshop in early fall that generally includes a meeting with new law schools as part of the program. Many law schools consider hiring a consultant to assist them with this process and the Managing Director’s office can provide additional information upon request.

Full Approval

Once a law school has obtained provisional approval, it remains in provisional status for at least three years. Unless extraordinary circumstances justify an extension, a law school may not remain in provisional status for more than five years. To be granted full approval, a law school must demonstrate that it is in full compliance with each of the Standards; substantial compliance does not suffice. Again, the burden is on the law school to establish full compliance.

During a law school’s provisional status, the progress of the law school is closely monitored. A visit to the law school by a full site evaluation team is conducted in years two and four after provisional approval. The Council has the discretion to order an additional site evaluation in any other year. After each such site visit, a site evaluation report is submitted to the law school and the Council. The Council reviews the site report and the law school’s response and sends the law school a letter summarizing its findings and indicating any areas where the Council needs further information or where the law school may require further work to achieve compliance.

In the year in which a law school is considered for full approval, the process is identical to that undertaken regarding an application for provisional approval. If the decision of the Council is to grant full approval, that decision is final and effective immediately upon notice to the law school. If the decision of the Council is to deny full approval, the law school has the right of appeal to the Appeals Panel.

Oversight of Fully-Approved Law Schools

After a law school is granted full approval, its compliance with the Standards is monitored through the Annual Questionnaire, Bar Passage Questionnaire, and Employment Questionnaire. Information obtained through the questionnaires is reviewed by the Council in accordance with Rule 5 on Interim Monitoring.

Fully approved law schools undergo a full site evaluation in the third year after full approval and every ten years thereafter. Law schools undergoing a site visit complete a self study, which elicits information about compliance with each Standard and requires law schools to complete a self-assessment. Following the site evaluation, the site evaluation team completes a report that is forwarded to the Council.

Site Evaluation Process

When a site evaluation is required under the Rules of Procedure, the Managing Director’s Office appoints a site evaluation team typically of six or seven persons to undertake an evaluation of the law school. The team chairperson is always an experienced site evaluator and frequently a present or former law school dean. The team usually consists of one or two academic law school faculty members, a law librarian, one faculty member with an expertise in professional skills instruction (clinic, simulation skills, or legal writing), one judge or practitioner, and, except on teams visiting a law school that is not affiliated with a university or college, one university administrator who is not a member of a law faculty.

Most ABA-approved law schools are also members of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). The AALS conducts its membership review process in parallel with the ABA review process. This minimizes the burden on law schools. If the site visit is to a law school that is an AALS member law school, then one member of the ABA site visit team is appointed by the AALS. This person is a full member of the ABA site visit team and will participate in all the team’s work, including drafting portions of the report.

The site evaluation team carefully reviews the materials the law school has provided and visits the law school for a three-day period, often from Sunday afternoon through Wednesday morning. During that visit, the team meets with the dean and other leaders of the faculty and law school administration, with the president and other university administrators or, in the case of an independent law school, with the leadership of the board of trustees, and tries to have one member of the team meet individually with every member of the faculty. The team also visits as many classes as it can during its visit to make judgments concerning the quality of instruction, holds an open meeting with students, and meets with student leaders. In addition, the team may meet with alumni and members of the bar and judiciary who are familiar with the law school.

At the end of the visit, the team meets with the dean and the president or, in the case of independent law schools, the board chair to provide an oral report of the team’s findings. Shortly after leaving the law school, the team drafts and finalizes an extensive written site evaluation report. The report covers all aspects of the law school’s operation including faculty and administration, the academic program, the student body and its success on the bar examination and in job placement, student services, library and information resources, financial resources, physical facilities, and technological capacities.

The site team is responsible for submitting to the Council a report that addresses the information relevant to each of the Standards so that the Council can determine whether a law school is in compliance with the Standards. The Managing Director’s Office conducts annual workshops to train evaluators and chairs of site evaluation teams. Workshops are also conducted to prepare law schools for site evaluation visits.

Action by the Council

The site report and any response by the law school, as well as historical information and responses to the Questionnaires, are sent to the Council to make compliance determinations.

The Council’s actions upon review of a site report on a fully approved law school are likely to take one of three forms. If the Council concludes that the law school fully complies with all the Standards, it writes the law school with that conclusion and indicates that the law school remains an approved law school. In the remainder of the cases, the Council will conclude either that the law school does not appear to comply with one or more of the Standards, or that the Council lacks sufficient information to determine whether the law school complies. In either case, the Council’s decision letter will indicate with specificity the Standard or Standards with which the law school does not comply, or to which Standard or Standards the Council lacks sufficient information to determine compliance. The law school will then be required, by a specific time, to indicate what steps the law school has taken to bring itself into compliance or to provide the information necessary to enable the Council to determine compliance.

If facts indicating possible noncompliance are presented from any source, the Council may, in its discretion, send a fact finder to ascertain facts for the Council’s consideration on whether the law school is in compliance. In addition, substantive changes in the program or organizational structure of the law school may constitute grounds for a site visit and action by the Council.

Once a finding of noncompliance is made, the law school is required to appear at a hearing to determine whether sanctions should be imposed. The law school must bring itself into compliance within the time specified by the Council, which may not exceed two years except for good cause shown. If the law school fails to come into compliance during the specified time, the Council initiates action to withdraw provisional or full approval.

Confidentiality

The Rules of Procedure for the Approval of Law Schools make clear that, in general, all matters relating to the accreditation of a law school are confidential.

Links

Timeline for Seeking Provisional/Full ABA Approval

Application for Approval: Notice of Intent to Seek Approval

ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools

ABA Questionnaires

Schedule of Law School Fees