Focusing on ‘forward thinking,’ ABA president-elect seeks to restructure Legal Ed section

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American Bar Association

Hilarie Bass

Hilarie Bass. ABA file photo by Tony Avelar.

A proposal to restructure the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar with a new, “forward thinking” commission handling all non-accreditation-related activities has been submitted to the ABA Board of Governors by incoming president Hilarie Bass.

The request (PDF), submitted Jan. 12, is on the agenda for the Board of Governors’ meeting taking place Feb. 3 and Feb. 4, according to an email the Legal Education Section sent its members.

“There has been an increasing drumbeat, amplified by the Great Recession, about the need for change in our system of legal education. Low bar passage rates, excessive law student debt, the depressed job market for new lawyers and the lack of value that employers place on the capabilities of recent law graduates are just some of the challenges that need to be addressed,” Bass wrote to the Board of Governors, noting that it’s “both unfortunate and a lost opportunity that the ABA is not seen as responsive to these complaints.”

The Commission on the Future of Legal Education would take over conferences, programs, publications and non-accreditation-focused Legal Education Section committees, according to Bass’ letter. Besides accreditation work, the section, which would be renamed the ABA Section on Accreditation, would keep deans workshops and assistant deans workshops, which tend to deal with accreditation issues. If approved, non-accreditation activity funds would shift to the commission in September. Commission members would be appointed.

The ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar does not comment on pending proposals before the Board of Governors and House of Delegates, a spokesperson told the ABA Journal. A letter (PDF) that Gregory C. Murphy, the section’s chair, sent the Board of Governors on Jan. 30 expressed various concerns and asked that Bass’ proposal be given “thoughtful consideration.” His concerns included existing relationships the section has with other legal education groups and how section dues would be split.

Also, Murphy asked that the U.S. Department of Education be notified of proposal before it is finalized, and be asked for an assessment of how it might change the ABA’s recognition as the national accrediting agency for law schools.

The council first heard about Bass’ idea in December, Murphy wrote, and he’d like careful consideration to be given for her request.

“The council is well aware of the negative press both it and legal education have received particularly since the last recession. The council welcomes the prospect of the ABA’s becoming a strong voice in defending legal education, and in recommending changes to the Standards for Approval of Law Schools … through the council’s accreditation process,” the letter reads. “Of course, the ABA can do that through a commission or otherwise without changing the current structure of the Section of Legal Education.”

The Deans Steering Committee of the Association of American Law Schools has asked the Board of Governors to table discussion of the proposal so members can be more involved.

“We learned of these proposals only yesterday, and we have serious concerns about them,” Daniel H. Rodriguez, chair of the steering committee, wrote in a Feb. 1 letter (PDF) to the Board of Governors.

“Because law schools may be disproportionately affected by the proposed changes, we would like an opportunity for meaningful engagement and consultation so that we can share our ideas, concerns and perspectives,” wrote Rodriguez, the dean of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

But some legal education groups are optimistic about Bass’ proposal.

“It is time that the ABA directs focused attention on the need for reform in legal education and bar licensing,” says Denise Roy, co president of the Society of American Law Teachers’ board of governors. “Ms. Bass’s proposal promises to do just that, and SALT supports the effort. Of course, its success will depend on naming a commission whose members are high-quality creative experts who will consider a wide range of views from both within and outside the academy. ”

Other’s wondered what good the commission would do it it doesn’t have any accreditation enforcement powers.

“This new commission has no authority to make law schools do anything, it seems that it would be just be another think tank,” says Pete Wentz, a former associate dean at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

“If you want to truly make change in legal education, you have to a vibrant accreditor that will push change, be more realistic about legal education today and have some authority to actually enforce standards that vary by each law school’s mission,” says Wentz, who is now an executive director with the strategic communications group APCO Worldwide. “Then maybe you will get change in legal education that makes sense.”

Creating the presidential commission could be done without drastically changing the Legal Education Section, according to Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

“I fear that the new formulation could extinguish volunteer participation that has been meaningful to many from both inside and outside legal education, and I wonder how the two entities being proposed will relate to one another,” said Moeser, who previously chaired the Legal Education Section. “As to the latter, the new structure could generate predictable clashes that will produce the very headlines that the ABA would prefer to avoid.”

Others say that a good business case could be made for Bass’ proposal.

“It can be credibly argued that the functions and processes associated with accreditation are inherently incompatible with those required for innovation,” David Mulligan, the CEO of education consulting firm Eduvantis, wrote in an email to the ABA Journal. “Accreditation tends to be more academia-focused whereas innovation tends to be market-focused.”

A best practice for organizations to respond to a disruptive market change is to set up a new group that acts like a “disruptor,” he added. “This is a strategy to respond more effectively to changing the status quo, and the new commission could essentially serve that function.”

Updated at 2:26 p.m. to include comments from Rodriguez. Updated at 3:22 p.m. to include comments from Mulligan.

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