ABA weighs law school standards, distance learning with eye toward access

The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates recently rejected a proposal that would have required law schools to ensure that at least three-quarters of their graduates pass the bar exam within two years of graduation, as critics asserted that the rule would threaten efforts to diversify the legal profession, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Proponents of the requirement—which failed in an 88-334 vote—had hoped it would help reduce the number of law school graduates who emerge unprepared to pass the bar, saddled with debt, and facing limited employment prospects. In making their case, proponents pointed to record-low bar-passage rates in certain regions.

Critics, however, said the policy would disproportionately affect law schools based in California, where bar exam standards “are significantly tougher than those in other states” and many law schools serve large populations of students of color. In a letter to the ABA, legal educators explain how the proposed rule would have played out using bar exam pass rates from 2015: 19 law schools would have lost accreditation; at 11 of them, more than 30 percent of enrollees were students of color. “If these schools had lost their accreditation, this would have considerably harmed efforts to diversify the legal profession,” the letter says.

Making the case for distance learning

Meanwhile, writing in Education Dive, Andrew Strauss, dean at the University of Dayton School of Law, calls for providing online access to legal education to make law degrees a possibility for a broader array of students. “We often forget just how hard it is to access legal education in the U.S.,” he writes, noting the significant hurdles faced by those who have limited financial resources, lack the foresight to prepare academically for law school, or pursue a law degree later in life. In addition, a sizeable portion of the U.S. population does not have a law school within commuting distance.

To date, the ABA has been hesitant to allow online juris doctor degrees, asserting that virtual learning could compromise quality and instructors’ use of the Socratic method. Strauss, however, says the University of Dayton and a handful of other institutions have received permission from the ABA to offer “hybrid” online classes combining pre-recorded instruction with live virtual classes and periodic in-person gatherings. “At a time when some citizens of rural areas may feel left out of the American dream, online legal education will contribute to a healthier and more democratic society,” Strauss writes.

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