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Preparing to Fail: Why the ABA Needs to Raise Standards for Law Schools to Operate

By Michael Kushner, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

The American Bar Association (ABA) Report on the Future of Legal Services considered the unemployment and underemployment of law school graduates a worthy concern. In 2013, the New York Times reported that 43% of 2013 law school graduates did not have long-term full-time legal jobs within nine months of graduation. According to the National Association for Law Placement, the class of 2013 faced an unemployment rate of 15.5%, almost double the general population’s rate. These figures are more shocking when considering the rising student debt resulting from law school. Although there are many working parts contributing to this problem, a solution to mitigate this situation is for the ABA to raise its standards on which law schools may operate.

The hefty law school price tag may potentially be overcome by the income that law school graduates receive through employment. As explained previously, however, unemployment and underemployment are rampant in the legal field. Law schools are not adequately preparing their students to pass the bar and have successful legal careers.

Certain law schools operate as a scam when considering exorbitant tuition prices with extremely low bar passage rates. The four law schools with the lowest bar passage rates for first-time, 2018 test-takers were Thomas Jefferson, Appalachian, La Verne, and the University of San Francisco, with no passage rate surpassing 33% among these schools. Now, consider the yearly tuition that students pay to attend these schools: $51,000, $35,000, $30,280, and $50,690, respectively. This is fraudulent practice. These schools are collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from students to “educate” them, yet no more than a third of their students can even be eligible to become a lawyer. Let’s not forget that passing the bar is only a prerequisite to work as a practicing attorney; many of the graduates that pass the bar may not find jobs to pay back their student debt.

The ABA has taken some action to mitigate this problem. In 2017, Whittier Law School was shut down due to poor student achievement, the first fully-accredited law school to shut down in three decades. While students and alumni were concerned for their future, legal experts criticized the school for admitting less-prepared students and saddling them with debt when job outcomes are poor. Kyle McEntee, the executive director of Law School Transparency, claimed that the school is wholly irresponsible for setting up many of its students for failure, concluding that “the school has done more harm than good.” Whittier Law School’s 2016 graduates had the second highest average debt burden from attending the school, at $179,056.

My solution to curtail unemployment is for the ABA to raise standards for law schools to continue to operate. The ABA floated this idea in a January 2019 proposal to require law schools to have 75% of graduates pass the bar within two years of graduation. The ABA’s House of Delegates rejected the plan, 88-334. The opposition for the proposal rested on two factors: raising the standards would unfairly discriminate against law schools in states with lower bar passage rates (ie. California), and the law schools which would be jeopardized have large minority student bodies.

While these points are valid, the harm of allowing these law schools to operate outweighs their potential benefits. Remember, law schools like Whittier were placing students, on average, in $180,000 of debt, while only preparing a third of their students to be eligible to practice law. Schools in California might complain that they are unfairly discriminated about the rule, but a logical response is that their performance as an institution is inadequate.

There will likely be unequal results when comparing law schools from state to state, and the solution does not intentionally discriminate against law schools in states with lower bar passage rates. Similarly, institutions with largely minority student bodies might shut down, but these are institutions that are placing most of their students in insurmountable debt and not giving their students a proper education to succeed as a lawyer. Are we truly denying an “opportunity” to practice law to these students when a significant majority of them are set up for failure by attending these institutions with substandard education?

Higher ABA standards would motivate schools to implement internal changes to comply, such as raising the minimum GPA required to pass or providing more resources for learning. This could weed out students who may not have the time or resources to become successful lawyers. While this seems harsh, it is worthwhile for a student to know they may be in trouble for the bar before shelling out more and more tuition money for continuing law school, only to fail the bar and be unemployed further down the road. Struggling law students from these institutions should know that, should they continue their legal education, they might be taking on more debt that they cannot pay off through legal work.

While unemployment rates have dropped to 10.6% for law school graduates of 2018, there is still room for improvement to mitigate the unemployment and underemployment rates of law students going forward. Requiring more stringent standards on law school bar passage rates would motivate schools to improve their curriculum and would minimize the number of students that take on extreme debt for a low percentage of passing the bar. The ABA’s 2019 proposal to raise law school standards may have failed, but it is a step in the right direction to solve this problem.