The good news about the “under-reported” changes to law school standards via The American Lawyer

Posted on 10-23-2014 by
Tags: Law school , Law School Faculty , law students , Latest Headlines & Stories

If you were following the American Bar Association’s deliberations on revising law school accreditation rules this spring and summer, you might have concluded that the "faculty tenure requirement" was all that was being discussed. Unsurprisingly, many law professors opposed the relatively mild proposed changes the ABA's Standards Review Committee offered, and the idea was ultimately scrapped in June. The revisions that did pass through the committee and received final approval by the ABA House of Delegates in August, however, deserve more elaboration because of their potential for reducing waste by law schools, which might benefit students. Plus, some of the changes have gone underreported generally.

The 10 Percent LSAT Rule

One of the most prominent changes to the standards is the "10 percent LSAT rule." Law schools may now admit up to a tenth of their entering classes with students who did not take the test. Superficially, one might criticize the rule for watering down admission standards further, which, to be fair, doesn't make sense, as there's no minimum LSAT score requirement for admissions anyway.

The new rule, though, is not open-ended, and its goal is to allow law schools to more easily engage in enrollment practices that some were already experimenting with by requesting variances from the ABA. The new Interpretation 503-3 only allows applicants to forgo the LSAT if either (a) they're undergraduates at the same institution to which they're applying to law school, or (b) they're seeking a dual degree at that institution.

The benefits will go mainly to law schools crafting shortened undergraduate/law programs. Notably, applicants in both scenarios must still take a standardized test. They must have scored in the 85th percentile or higher on the ACT or SAT if they're undergrads at the same institution. If they're seeking a dual degree, they must have scored at the 85th percentile or higher in the GMAT or GRE. No one gets into law school without taking a standardized test and doing very well on it. Applicants must also have either ranked in the top 10 percent of their undergraduate classes through six semesters or achieved a cumulative grade-point average of 3.5 or greater.

The bottom line is that relatively few applicants will benefit from the 10 percent LSAT rule, and in no way is it watering down the aptitude requirement for law students because only very sharp people will be able to use it. It's possible that many qualified students (even high schoolers) might not even know about it. At most, this new rule excuses would-be elite law school students who would have crushed the LSAT anyway, but it's still better than subjecting them to needless testing.

The Full-Time Faculty Calculation

Before the standards' revision, Interpretations 402-1 and 402-2 strongly encouraged (read: required) law schools to calculate their ratios of full-time equivalent students to full-time faculty using a convoluted methodology that counted some law school instructors as fractions of full-time professors. The purposes were to craft an empirical metric for ensuring that law schools weren't understaffed and give prospective students an indicator of law schools' course sizes.

In practice, the rule's only real contribution was to give researchers an opportunity to measure just how much law schools grew their payrolls over the last few decades. To honor the elimination of the two interpretations, here's the most up-to-date rendering of law school faculty expansion.

Shrinking Libraries

Law school libraries are required to have a "core collection" of materials that students and faculty should be able to use. Until now, the problem was that many of these books weren't used frequently, and the advent of the Internet made them obsolete. Nevertheless, the accreditation rules obligated law schools to maintain their vast library collections. Now, Standard 606 and Interpretation 606-2 have added the phrase "reliable access" to characterize the "core collection." "Reliable access" can include subscription and publicly available databases as well as "formal resource-sharing arrangements." At last, law school libraries can enter the 21st century, which will hopefully be reflected in reduced costs for students.

Office-Sharing for Professors

It might be a relatively minor point, but if the accreditation standards still require law schools to grant their professors tenure, at least law schools won't have to go to the trouble of giving them individual offices. That's right, until recently Interpretation 701-2(3) (which is now Standard 702(a)(4)) mandated "an office for each full-time faculty member." Truly, this was one of the most flagrant examples of self-serving rule making by the law profs who influenced the accreditation standards. Now the revised Standard 702(a)(4) merely reads "office space for full-time faculty members," which gives law schools much more flexibility in assigning office space to faculty, even though their numbers are starting to dwindle.

Documenting the Law School 'Tax'

This change is one of my favorites.

Law schools and their parent universities are sometimes criticized for using their law schools as revenue sources for other university operations, a phenomenon referred to as "the tax." The belief is that the low actual cost of supplying legal education (despite some of the needlessly burdensome requirements that were revised above) coupled with the high demand (and subsidies) for it led to central administrators eyeing law schools as irresistible sources of revenue for funding other parts of campuses.

In one notorious example that occurred in 2011, the University of Baltimore Law School Dean Phillip Closius complained to the ABA that his parent university confiscated all but $81,000 out of a collective $1.5 million tuition hike. The ABA demanded an accounting from the university, and Closius resigned.

To combat such behavior by central administrations, the new Standard 202(b) requires law schools attached to parent universities obtain an annual "accounting and explanation for all charges and costs assessed against resources generated by the law school and for any use of resources generated by the law school to support nonlaw school activities and central university services." The "tax" will remain, but it won't be a university secret anymore. The rule change might even lead to awkward conversations between ABA accreditors and university administrators. Who knows, maybe students will get more of their money's worth or even a tuition cut?

Readers can find the revised standards here.

Conclusion

The good news from these particular underreported standards is that in theory they reduce costs and effort for law students. High-scoring students who want to forgo the LSAT and complete law school more quickly will have an opportunity to do so. Law schools won't have to use students' tuition dollars to figure out how many of their legal writing instructors are worth one academic professor, nor overstock their libraries with unnecessary collections, indulge their law professors with individual offices or pay for nonlaw university programs. Although it's doubtful that these standards will directly reduce tuition costs, at least the new standards try to eliminate ways they can be wasted.

The above article was written by Matt Leichter has been republished courtesy of by The American Lawyer.

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