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From the Chair: The Council's Role

Leo P. Martinez

Leo P. Martinez

Leo P. Martinez
Dean Emeritus & Albert Abramson Professor of Law Emeritus
University of California Hastings College of the Law
2021-2022 Council Chair

The Department of Education (DOE) recently reauthorized the ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar’s (the Council) role as the accreditor of U.S. law schools for the next five years. I have also conducted my first meeting as Chair of the Council. With both these events in mind, I thought it would be useful to begin with an overview of the Council’s role as an accreditor and its independence from the broader ABA. 

The Council has been about its business for a long time. It has approved law schools since 1923. The Council has also been an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit the “first professional degree in law” (J.D.) since 1952. It is the Council of the Section that is the governing body for Accreditation. Indeed, 34 CFR 602.14(b) requires the Council to act “separately and independently” from the larger ABA. To repeat, it is the Council, not the ABA, that is formally the accreditor of U.S. law schools.

All accreditors approved by the DOE are required to follow the DOE’s regulations as outlined in CFR §602.16. CFR §602.16 requires an accreditor to “demonstrate that it has standards for accreditation . . . that are sufficiently rigorous to ensure that the agency is a reliable authority regarding the quality of the education or training provided by the institutions or programs it accredits.” The regulation then specifies that an accreditor must set forth clear expectations in its standards in ten separate areas, ranging from student achievement to loan default rates. Although the ten areas are broad, the large point is that an accreditor works within the framework of the regulation. 

The Council constantly reviews and revises its Standards to comply with its regulatory obligations. This review and revision process also reflects twin goals. The first goal is to incorporate best educational practices. For example, the requirement of measuring student outcomes and the focus on experiential learning are oriented to improving law student education. The second goal is to align generally with the expectation of the state supreme courts and state bar admissions processes, which accept the ABA-approved law school J.D. degree as meeting the jurisdiction’s requirements to qualify to take the bar examination. The latter is a balancing exercise with the realization that jurisdictional requirements vary.

The promulgation of new Standards and revision of existing Standards follow a process that calls for “notice and comment” from law schools, the legal profession, the judiciary, and the public. In addition, the Council has also recently begun using virtual roundtables as a further means of gathering input for its ongoing review of the Standards.

The themes that also emerge from the DOE’s guidance and the Standards are consumer protection and accountability. As the Standards Review Committee in its Statement of Principles of Accreditation and Fundamental Goals of a Sound Program of Legal Education noted on May 6, 2009 (the Statement):

The core function of accreditation review is the notion that there are constituencies that rely on the accreditation process for accurate information about accredited programs and institutions, and that, from a consumer protection perspective, the results of accreditation review permit informed judgments to be made about the quality of accredited institutions.

The Statement also describes the central aspects to accreditation review. These are: assuring educational quality, advancing the core mission of legal education, accountability, clarity/precision, and assessment of program quality and student assessment.

All of the preceding must be kept in mind as the Council navigates the future. It is not always easy. We have been and continue to be dealing with a “once in a lifetime” pandemic. We are seeing a racial reawakening not seen since the sixties that highlights the ill-treatment of African-Americans and others of us who don’t fit the mold. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, we are seeing an unprecedented backlash to the uncomplicated request for equal treatment. We are seeing political rifts that threaten the core of our democracy. Finally, and as if the preceding weren’t cause enough for insomnia, I add to this mix the question of the economic sustainability of higher education. 

No matter the outside currents and pressures, there is still our core work to tend to. The members of the Council and its staff are single-minded about this work.  We are all united behind the idea that the Council continue to be a consistent, responsible, and reliable overseer of legal education.

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