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Law school ABA bid begins again

Jason D. Cox
Senior Editor 

The University of La Verne College of Law regained provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association on March 26, marking the start of yet another multi-year multimillion dollar attempt to achieve full ABA accreditation.

After more than 10 years, three deans and more than $20 million, accreditation still remains just out of reach for the college, which now needs to increase its first-time Bar passage rate if it every wants to gain credibility on a national scale.

“The president is working closely with the board for a careful and critical review of the law school,” Jonathan Reed, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said.

Interim Dean of the College of Law Phil Hawkey, the fourth to lead the school through this arduous and expensive process, retains his optimism.

“We’ve put more resources into academic support and bar preparation,” Hawkey said.

On Jan. 19, La Verne sent President Devorah Lieber­man, Hawkey, Assistant Dean Tiffany Graham, Assistant Dean Alexis Thompson, Provost Greg Dewey and Board of Trustees Chairman Luis Faura to present their new strategy to the ABA’s Council of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

The Council is the final decision-making body that would determine whether La Verne’s College of Law would win back provisional accreditation.

It was the opinion of the ABA Council that, with low first-time bar pass rates, ULV’s law students needed more preparation before sitting for the Bar exam.

“(The Council) never raised any questions about the quality of education,” Hawkey said. “Their concerns were mainly on getting students used to the intensity of being an attorney.”

This guidance is to account for the recent failed attempt at full ABA accreditation. Last year, in the final phase of getting full ABA accreditation, the College of Law was denied due to its low first-time Bar pass rates.

Representatives told the Council they plan to analyze academics carefully and help students from the first day.

“The faculty is working on ways they can deliver the content to the students and help them to prepare for the Bar,” Lieberman said.

On March 26, the announcement was made that the Council had granted the College of Law provisional accreditation, a status to be held for no less than three years.

The renewed provisional accreditation is good news for spring 2012 graduates as they will be eligible to sit for state Bar exams throughout the United States.

This news is good, but it is not the only news.

Since the College of Law made its first attempt at ABA accreditation, the University has spent $22 million in its efforts, said Sharon Davis, professor of sociology and a faculty senator.

The latest University budget assigns an additional $2.1 million to the College of Law, every cent of which comes from revenues generated by the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, and Education.

“Life would be a bit sweeter for us and for students here on campus if we had some of those funds for our direct needs,” Davis said.

While administrators remain hopeful about gaining full ABA accreditation, the rest of the University has had to do without those millions, and also without the accredited College of Law it was meant to have.

When the College of Law lost accreditation last spring, it also lost students and faculty.

“In the fall of 2010, the College of Law’s enrollments reached a peak of 425 students,” Associate Vice President and Treasurer Avo Kechichian said in an emailed interview. “After losing American Bar Association provisional accreditation, enrollments dropped to 274 students in the fall of 2011.”

Losing accreditation not only puts the fate of students in jeopardy, but also leads some faculty and staff to seek other, perhaps more stable, avenues of employment.

If exemplary faculty leave the institution, this also makes it more difficult to attract new, adequate students.

“Now that we have regained provisional accreditation, we are being very selective in the students that we admit to the COL, and are planning a slow growth in enrollments for the next few years,” Kechichian said in the emailed interview.

Being selective could help raise first-time Bar pass rates, but the need to fill seats makes the luxury of selectivity unlikely.

The College of Law will offer incoming students an 85 percent discount. This will attract many students, but it will not, in and of itself, increase first-time Bar pass rate.

“This could be a win-win situation,” Davis said. “The students get to attend our law school for 15 percent of the cost, and the College of Law gets better students and more of them.”

Offering greater discounts makes it easier for students to come to La Verne Law, but the quality of students attracted to the struggling school is uncertain.

While the College of Law works to achieve full accreditation, recent studies show a national decline in students applying to law school, fewer students registering for the Law School Administration Test, and the value of a law degree in the current job market is depreciating.

An article from insidehighered.com last year reported that law schools such as the Touro Law Center and Albany Law School in New York, and Creighton University School of Law in Nebraska were shrinking their incoming class sizes.

According to the article, too many students are being admitted to law schools at too high a cost for the job market to sustain.

There are 20 ABA accredited law schools in California, not including La Verne’s College of Law. They have been feeling this trend and seeking a way to avoid it.

According to an article this month in USA Today, Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hast­ings College of Law, believes specialization is the remedy. There is a demand for specialized perspectives, he said.

Last year, the La Verne College of Law was in the final stages of achieving full ABA accreditation. It had received a positive recommendation from the Accreditation Committee for the ABA, but was later turned down by the Council for the ABA.

The College of Law had met the ultimate Bar pass rate required to gain full accreditation, having earned a 75 percent ultimate Bar pass rate four out the five previous years.

The ABA had indicated earlier that meeting this requirement was enough to gain full accreditation.

However, the College of Law was still denied accreditation on the grounds that it had not met the so-called “bright line” standard.

This standard requires that a law school come within 15 percent of other law schools’ first-time Bar pass rates.

The Board of Trustees decided the dean at that time, Allen Easley, was also to blame, due to a lack of leadership. Easley later resigned for personal reasons and was replaced by Hawkey.

After being denied full accreditation, the College of Law had to start the whole process over again by immediately applying for provisional accreditation.

Improving academic support involves helping law students with the integral skills they will need to be attorneys, such as reading, writing and critical thinking in the context of the law.

“Our students know the law,” Hawkey said.

With additional support to expose students to the intensity of the Bar exam, University administrators that they will advance from being students of the law to being students who can be attorneys.

Earning a degree from a law school that is ABA accredited and passing the Bar exam allows a student to practice law in any state.

“The ABA is a private organization, it’s not a government body or anything,” said Justin Janzen, a graduate of the La Verne College of Law and adjunct professor of media law in the College of Arts and Sciences.

There are many ways to get a law degree in the United States, but in California, there are three strategies.

If attending an unaccredited law school, a student must take the First Year Students’ Law Exam. After passing the FYSLE, commonly referred to as the “baby Bar exam,” students may move on to advanced law courses and eventually sit for the California Bar Exam.

The second way is to attend a law school that is state-accredited, which would eventually allow a student to sit for the California Bar Exam. However, this route or taking the baby Bar would limit that student to practicing law in California only.

The final and most widely accepted strategy is to attend a law school that is ABA accredited and sit for the Bar exam in whichever state they choose to practice.

As it stands, the College of Law will continue along this path toward full ABA accreditation.

“The law school produces students who contribute to their communities in significant ways and I’m proud of those students,” Lieberman said. “I look forward to being a part of an institution that has a successful law school.”

Jason D. Cox can be reached at jason.cox@laverne.edu.

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