If the ABA law school accreditation process did not exist, someone would invent it. It is a very efficient solution to an important problem. Here’s why that is so.
Multiple jurisdictions. There is no national bar admission in the United States. Fifty-six (56) states, districts, and territories license U.S. lawyers. Each has plenary authority over bar admissions within their borders. Basically, every jurisdiction requires passing its bar examination as a condition of admission to the bar. Eligibility to take that exam generally requires completion of a qualifying legal educational program.
Law schools. There are approximately 240 law schools in the United States, 203 of which are ABA-approved to award the J.D. degree. Each year, there are more than 30,000 graduates of those ABA-approved schools. Most of those graduates want to take the bar examination and become licensed lawyers. Often, the graduate wants to take the bar in the state where she went to law school, but not always. For example, increasingly graduates move to where the work is.
The prospect of varying education standards. From the jurisdiction’s point of view, how does it decide what education meets its requirements? From the law school’s perspective, how might it construct its program and advise its students regarding admissions requirements that might vary considerably among the states? Students are caught in the middle. Do they have the information they need to make intelligent choices about their education, with their future prospects in mind?
An efficient solution. This is where the ABA law school accreditation project comes into play. All jurisdictions accept a J.D. degree from an ABA-approved law school as satisfying their educational requirements for eligibility to sit for the bar examination. In many states, earning a J.D. from an ABA-approved school is the only way to meet that education requirement. Jurisdictions retain their authority, but exercise it by accepting that a J.D. degree from a school approved by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar demonstrates that the graduate has had an appropriately rigorous and comprehensive legal education. The ABA-approved law school J.D. becomes a transportable credential, relieving the school and the graduate from concerns about varying education requirements among the states.
Similarly, jurisdictions are relieved of the need to adopt education standards and enforce them against over 200 law schools. States’ bar admissions processes count on the Council to adopt and enforce a set of reasonable requirements.
Without the ABA law school accreditation process every school would have to have personnel and space to make sure it is in good standing with every admitting jurisdiction, and every admitting jurisdiction would have to have staff and space to adopt and enforce educational standards on over 200 law schools.
I estimate the total cost of this activity to be in the range of $65 million annually: 250 entities (about 50 jurisdictions and about 200 law schools) spending about $250,000 each (estimating two persons – salary and benefits – plus space, and other operating expenses = $62.5 million, rounding to $65 million for the sake of discussion). For the admitting jurisdictions the expenses cover setting standards and reviewing law schools for compliance with them. For schools, the expenses are to keep track of the rules in multiple jurisdictions and advise and provide services/support to students/graduates seeking admission.
The Council’s budget for doing this work is about $5,000,000. The efficiency of the process is compelling – if it didn’t exist, someone would invent it. It solves a $65 million problem.
To make this efficient process also a sound one, the Council must establish appropriate standards and enforce them fairly. To do that, it needs the participation of excellent lawyers, judges, and academics, which we are fortunate to have. So long as this continues to be true, the work that the ABA has done and supports in the ABA law school accreditation process serves the profession, the public, students, and the law schools extraordinarily well. It is a $5 million bargain for both the education and professional communities we serve.