This is not the first time that ABA has censured a mediocre law school. Last summer, the ABA's accrediting unit recommended against accrediting the newly organized University of North Texas School of Law and cited Ava Maria Law School for failing to comply with ABA quality standards. Like Charlotte and Valparaiso, UNT and Ava Maria received ABA raspberries for low admission standards.
But the ABA's sanctions against four mediocre law schools is too little and too late. The job market for lawyers has imploded; and law chool admission applications have plunged. Many second- and third-tier law schools have had to lower their admissions standards just to fill empty seats; consequently, a lot of law schools are graduating a high number of students who will have difficulty passing their bar exams.
Law School Transparency (LST), a watchdog organization that monitors law school admission standards and bar pass rates, identified a great many law schools that have very low admission standards. LST constructed a model for determining when law school admission standards are so low that students run the risk of failing the bar, and it found a high number of law schools with dicey admission standards.
These are some of LST's most startling findings from its 2015 report on law schools' admission standards for their 2014 entering classes:
- Seven law schools had admitted students with qualifications so low that 50 percent of their freshman classes ran an extreme risk of failing the bar exam. Those schools included Southern University Law Center, a historically black institution; and Arizona Summit and Florida Coastal, two for-profit law schools.
- Twenty-six law schools had admission standards so low that 25 percent of their entering classes were at extreme risk of failing the bar. Texas Southern, another historically black law school, is on that list, along with several regional public institutions, including North Carolina Central University, Ohio Northern University, and Southern Illinois University.
- Twenty-nine law schools had admission standards so low that 25 percent of their entering classes ran a very high risk of failing the bar exam. Among this number were John Marshall Law School, a for-profit institution; Widener University, a private school; and University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a public institution.
It is the ABA's responsibility to monitor law schools' quality standards, and it fell down on the job. In fact, an advisory panel for the Department of Education recently recommended that the ABA's authority to accredit more law schools be suspended for a year--an astonishing rebuke to a very powerful professional organization.
But even if the ABA gets serious about enforcing quality standards at the nation's law schools, thousands of law-school graduates have already been seriously injured. On average, an individual graduates from law school with $140,000 in student-loan debt; and there are now two newly minted attorneys for every available law job.
Some law graduates have sued their law schools for misrepresentation, arguing they were lured into enrolling based on misleading job placement rates that the law schools disseminated. So far, these suits have been unsuccessful. Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Thomas Jefferson Law School, for example, successfully defended lawsuits filed by their graduates.
A number of law school graduates have filed bankruptcy in an attempt to discharge their student loans. Some have been successful or at least partly successful--the Barrett case and the Hedlund case. Others have lost their adversary lawsuits: Mark Lilly and Mark Tetzlaff.
In my view, people who graduated from second- and third-tier law schools with mountains of debt and no law job should seriously consider filing bankruptcy. But if they pursue this course, they must educate the bankruptcy judge about the terrible job market for lawyers and the high debt load that most law graduates now carry.
As the crisis in legal employment becomes more evident, I think bankruptcy judges will become more and more sympathetic toward law school graduates who are burdened by heavy debt loads and don't have law jobs. I think judges might be particularly sympathetic to debtors who graduated from second- and third-tier law schools given the terrible job prospects for these people.
As I said, educating the bankruptcy judge is critical. The data collected by Law School Transparency is a good place to look for data that will help bankruptcy judges understand the absolutely desperate plight of many recent law scool graduates.
Barrett v. U.S. Department of Education, 545 B.R. 645 (Bankr. N.D. Cal. 2016).
Paul Fain. Federal panel votes to terminate ACICS and tightens screws on other accreditors. Inside Higher Ed, June 24, 2016.
Andrew Kreighbaum. ABA Censures Law School. Inside Higher Ed, November 22, 2016.
Andrew Kreighbaum. ABA Tighens Up. Inside Higher Ed, August 31, 2016.