Commentary: ABA insider fails to make case for ABA accreditation

By Kurt Olson

ABA accreditation insider Barry Currier recently brought up the same argument used for years to justify ABA accreditation of law schools. In the fall edition of Syllabus, the promotional newsletter for the ABA’s Section of Legal Education, Currier, the ABA's managing director of accreditation, restated the words of former law school accreditors to explain why the ABA’s Section should remain in sole charge of accrediting law schools.  He wrote that if it is not the ABA, then the individual states would have to assume the job of evaluating law schools. In fact, playing on the states’ fear of having to assume such a job -- and reminding them of their previously articulated inability to do so -- may have motivated Currier to write the article. But Currier’s argument fails to take other viable alternatives into account, as if they didn’t exist.

From a quick web search on accreditation, an interested observer would quickly conclude that multiple additional alternatives are available. When Currier wrote, “As I often say, if our process did not exist, someone would invent it,” he betrayed the bias in favor of the ABA’s system that has caused students and consumers so many problems over the last few decades. These problems include out-of-control tuition increases, lack of practical skills training for law school graduates, and the stifling of innovation and experimentation among law schools.

Currier has been intimately involved in Section of Legal Education activities for at least 20 years, and he must know that states would not have to adopt their own standards and determine whether each law school meets those standards. Six regional accrediting organizations currently accredit institutions of higher learning all over the country, and recognition by one of these organizations qualifies their member schools for the federal direct loan program. Additionally, these regional accreditors are well- equipped to evaluate all institutions of higher learning; they would not need to adopt new standards, and some already accredit law schools.       

Additionally, in contrast to the ABA’s Section, which persists in imposing high-cost, prescriptive standards, regional accreditors largely base their decisions on holistic accreditation standards such as whether schools are meeting their own goals of providing rigorous educational experiences. These accreditors correctly assume that the goals pursued by their member schools have intrinsic value in imparting knowledge and promoting learning.

For instance, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools sets forth “Guiding Values” for their Accreditation Criteria, and these include the following: Focus on Student Learning; Education as a Public Purpose; A Culture of Continuous Improvement; Integrity, Transparency, and Ethical Behavior or Practice; and Mission-Centered Evaluation. Information from the web sites for the other five regional organizations shows that they embrace similar values and evaluate schools based on whether they’re achieving their own goals and purposes, not whether they comply with inflexible standards that impede rather than promote quality – such as those still enforced by the ABA.

Furthermore, multiple accrediting organizations certify the quality of educational institutions in disciplines other than law. For instance, three separate accreditors perform the certification function for business schools: AACSB, ACBSP, & IACBE. These organizations have overlapping areas of responsibility in associate, undergraduate, Master’s, and doctoral levels. Additionally, two separate accreditors certify programs in all of the following disciplines: distance learning (ACICS & DETC); engineering (ABET & ATMAE); health care (CAHME & CAAHEP); teachers (TEAC & NCATE); psychology (PCSAS & APA-CoA); and audiology (ACAE & ASHA).

Having multiple certification options in individual disciplines demonstrates that Mr. Currier’s argument is disingenuous at best; more importantly, it suggests that there’s room in legal education for another accreditor. An alternative accreditor for law schools could have overlapping authority with the ABA to approve programs awarding juris doctor degrees while introducing much-needed variety and flexibility into the process. They could thereby promote high-quality, efficiently operated programs at reasonable prices – the very opposite of what the ABA has done. 

Finally, in concluding that states would be the only option to take over the accreditation of law schools, Mr. Currier offers no proof for his estimate of the potential cost. He wrote that the cost to schools and states “at a minimum would likely be millions of dollars per year, double or triple the cost of the current structure.” However, the current cost for an application for approval by the ABA is $30,000.00, and annual site visits for provisionally approved schools cost $13,000.00.

Additionally, the “visited institution” is expected to pick up the cost for “all reasonable and necessary expenses of members of site evaluation teams and fact finders.” These costs include transportation, lodging and meals, and incidentals for what are typically at least seven-member teams. Thus, the combined cost of an application and one site visit could easily exceed $50,000.00, so schools themselves defray most of the cost of the process.  Contrary to Mr. Currier’s unsubstantiated claim, state-run accreditation would cost only a small fraction of what he estimates. 

Let’s assume a state has seven law schools, and it decides to take on the ABA’s burden of accrediting law schools in its territory. First, the would probably opt for leaner inspection teams rather than following the ABA’s model. Teams of three or four volunteers would gladly serve for the privilege of paying something back to their native state and the esteem that attends such public service. Additionally, inspection teams in other disciplines typically are comprised of only three or four members.

Second, schools would no longer have to pay the freight for huge travel, lodging, meals and incidental expenses; because the volunteer teams would be local, costs would be significantly reduced. Thus, rather than imposing costs on states, bar admissions offices, or schools, the accreditation function might well provide a much-needed source of funding for cash-strapped states and municipalities.

It seems that Mr. Currier felt it was his duty to defend the ABA’s accreditation process in the face of steadily mounting criticism about the havoc the ABA’s accreditation standards have caused law schools and law students over the past 20 years. He performed a public relations function for the ABA’s Section, trying to deflect any criticism of the process by suggesting how essential that process is when, in fact, his arguments in favor of the Section either lack empirical proof or are marred by errors.

Mr. Currier’s attempt to extol the virtues, and thereby justify the continued existence of, a flagging accreditation system is ironic given how the ABA’s own Task Force on the Future of Legal Education recently maligned many of the ABA’s standards, saying many should be either repealed or substantially liberalized. Under these circumstances, if Currier intends to invent another process, perhaps he should model it on something more commendable than the ABA’s discredited system.

Kurt Olson is an associate professor at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, MA.  He can be reached at 978.681.0800 ext. 131 or