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PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF ACCREDITATION STANDARDS

The American Bar Association (ABA) was founded in 1878 as a voluntary professional association of lawyers, and almost immediately began agitating for increasingly higher standards in legal education. Of course, the ABA had no real direct power to legislate bar admission standards in any American jurisdiction, but it was a powerful lobbying group, and its persistence met with success. Largely due to its efforts, minimal standards for law schools increased throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These standards canded law schools to become three-year graduate programs, taught by a minimal ratio of well-qualified faculty, with access to substantial libraries and other relevant resources. Graduation from law school programs approved by the ABA eventually became the accepted minimal standard for taking the bar examination in most American jurisdictions, but these changes came gradually.

The ABA's efforts to improve legal education began in 1881, when the organization tried to get all American jurisdictions to accept time spent in law school as the equivalent of time in a law office apprenticeship program. Within the following decade, the ABA was recommending that law school education be treated as the preferred method for entry into the profession, while it also strived to improve the minimal standards for an acceptable law school education, introducing the notion that law school should be a three-year graduate level program.

The establishment of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in 1900 put still more pressure on law schools to raise their standards. The AALS grew out of the ABAs Section on Legal Education, which had fallen under the control of academic lawyers. Its membership was open only to law schools rather than individuals, and member institutions were required to meet certain minimal standards, such as those pertaining to faculty resources, student admission policies, libraries, and length of study program. For example, initial requirements for membership in the AALS included admitting only students who had at least a high school education, running a program that lasted at least two years (of thirty weeks each), providing access to a library with U.S. and local state reports. By 1907, law schools with less than a three-year program were denied membership in the AALS. But in its early years, the AALS represented only a small proportion of the law schools in America, and professional standards for bar admission were determined by the individual states and the federal courts, not the professional associations. Thus, despite the efforts of these organizations, as of 1917 no single state even required graduation from law school as a prerequisite for becoming a licensed lawyer.

During the early twentieth century, the number of law schools and law students steadily increased, from 102 law schools with 12,516 students in 1900, to 146 law schools with 24,503 students in 1920. Many of these were part-time evening programs operating with minimal standards. Needless to say, these newer marginal law schools were not members of the AALS—they did not come close to meeting the AALS membership requirements—and as a result the AALS represented fewer and fewer of the total number of American law schools. However, these part-time programs were especially attractive to new immigrants and other working students of lesser means as a gateway for moving up in America. But to those in the ABA and AALS who had worked to establish stronger standards for law schools, the breadth of American legal education opportunities merely emphasized their failure to set higher standards for the education of America's lawyers. The requirements espoused by these organizations had failed to close down schools that refused to adopt them. It was in this atmosphere that the ABA and AALS moved to further strengthen their standards and to convince the various state boards of bar examiners into enforcing them.

This tightening of standardized requirements by the ABA and AALS established a pattern that would persist for the remainder of the century, with AALS membership standards always a bit tougher than those of the ABA. The ABA also invested its Council on Legal Education with the power to accredit law schools. These new standards included a minimum of two years of college for admission to law school, three years of full-time law study for graduation, and four years in a part-time evening program. In order to make these new standards for accreditation more than merely persuasive, the ABA sponsored a conference of state and local bar associations the following year and obtained their endorsement. In this manner, graduation from an ABA-accredited law school eventually became a prerequisite for taking the bar examination in most American jurisdictions. Membership in the AAES continued to be voluntary and served to enhance the status of those schools who cared to become members.

Accreditation and membership standards of the ABA and AALS continued to evolve throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, and the financial barriers for meeting these standards often served to keep newer and marginal law schools from continuing their operations. The organizational standards now require investment in a substantial library and physical plant, tough admission standards for new students, and a highly qualified faculty offering a breadth of courses. By the end of the century, only a couple of jurisdictions—notably Massachusetts and California—permitted graduates of non-ABA accredited programs to register for the bar examination. Perhaps explaining its low bar passage rates, California actually had more non-ABA accredited law schools than fully accredited programs. These schools, carrying names like the Peoples School of Law, provide legal education opportunities for those who would not be admitted to an accredited law school, while simultaneously providing a profit for their owners. But with 180 fully accredited law schools operating nationally, and an increasingly competitive marketplace for new lawyers, most states have tightened their bar requirements and closed down those law schools unable to meet the minimal standards of the ABA. Legal challenges brought by would-be law schools turned down for ABA accreditation have largely failed, although the ABA's accrediting authority continues to be under fire by those who believe the ABA requirements serve to limit competition.

 

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TITLE: Law and Legal Services at CitiMall.com Online Shopping Mall

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