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Law School Deans Ask For Extension On Exploitation

January 18th, 2017 / By

Originally published on Above the Law.

Laptop in classic libraryMore than 90 law school deans have asked their accreditor to halt new standards that would hold schools accountable for very low bar passage rates.

Last October, the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education & Admissions to the Bar approved two new standards to stop exploitative admissions and retention practices. At a time when demand for law school decreased significantly, a minority of law schools began admitting swaths of students who, after three or more years of legal education, were not adequately equipped to pass the bar exam.

Why would a law school choose to do this? To keep tuition dollars flowing.
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Charlotte School Of Law Should Be More Transparent, Immediately

January 4th, 2017 / By

game of loansEd. note: This post was co-authored with David Frakt, an attorney and the chair of Law School Transparency’s National Advisory Council. This was originally published on Above the Law.

The United States Department of Education (ED) notified Charlotte School of Law on December 19, 2016, that its students would no longer be eligible for federal student loans. The decision, as with the American Bar Association’s decision to put CSL on probation a month earlier, surprised and alarmed CSL students. Since that time, students have reached out to law schools across the country to inquire about attending in the immediate or near future. With no other law schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, there are practical limitations on the choices CSL students face.

Several students report to us that, despite CSL’s assurances, information has been both limited and not particularly useful as they try to assess their options. Furthermore, these students report that administrators have been unavailable to answer questions. The school appears to have completely shut down for winter break from December 22 through January 3 despite the urgency of the situation that has developed in Charlotte. These administrators have likewise not been available to the press since the Education Department’s announcement in December.

It is not yet clear that the school will resume classes on January 9, as scheduled. And even if the school does resume operations next week, students still have an understandable desire to explore available options.

In theory, students have four options.

  1. Continue their classes at CSL. These students would need to cover the more than $22,000 in tuition and fees per semester with a combination of discounts from the law school, cash, and private student loans.
  2. Pause their legal education. Rather than rush into a decision based on incomplete information, students may wish to take a semester off and weigh their options. Under ABA rules, students have up to 84 months within starting law school to obtain all the credits to earn their JD.
  3. Visit at another law school. Students may attend another law school that accepts them as a visitor. They would need to cover tuition and fees at the new school in the same way as they would at CSL — without federal student loans. Some students may be able to complete their degree requirements as a visitor. Otherwise, they may return to CSL (if open) or transfer, though they may lose some credits.
  4. Transfer to another law school. A transfer to another law school would likely be a permanent move. The school’s latest communication to students indicates a pending arrangement with Florida Coastal School of Law (likewise owned by Infilaw) that would guarantee transfer to Coastal. For students with low grades or on academic probation, this may be the only available option. Students wishing to attend another law school will need to obtain admission through the target school’s standard transfer application process.

At this point, CSL students cannot make informed decisions because CSL has not been sufficiently transparent. As such, Law School Transparency has sent CSL a letter with an urgent request for information that will help CSL students make the choice that is best for their personal career ambitions.

Infilaw, which owns Charlotte School of Law and Florida Coastal School of Law, must be transparent about any pending or reasonably foreseeable ABA sanctions at Florida Coastal. As CSL develops its plan for CSL students to transfer to Coastal, they must ensure that CSL students are fully informed about Coastal’s compliance with ABA standards. Students need and deserve to know about the potential for similar problems to emerge at Coastal.

In November, the ABA placed CSL on probation because of its exploitative admissions and retention policies. Coastal’s admissions statistics are not meaningfully different than CSL’s. The majority of students at both schools face extreme risk of failing the bar exam. These two schools also have the highest attrition rates in the country. It’s possible that the ABA has already warned Coastal that it is out of compliance with the ABA standards, much in the way that the ABA warned CSL in February 2016. Indeed, Coastal’s dean announced the school’s intent to raise admissions standards this past fall. Infilaw should disclose any communications from the ABA that in any way indicate potential sanctions against Coastal, including fact-finding inquiries that the ABA will use to evaluate whether the school has sound admissions and retention policies and practices.

Infilaw should be transparent about communication with the U.S. Department of Education regarding Florida Coastal School of Law’s continued participation in the federal student loan program. The ED cited two independent reasons to deny CSL’s participation in the federal student loan program. First, the ED cited CSL’s non-compliance with the ABA standards. Second, the ED cited CSL’s “substantial misrepresentations regarding the nature of its academic program.” The ED based this finding, in part, on CSL’s failure to disclose until November 2016 that the ABA found the school non-compliant with the ABA standards in February 2016. If Coastal has received notice from the ABA about non-compliance, it has not disclosed it to date. That could provide a basis for the ED to take similar action against Coastal.

Coastal might be a reasonable alternative for some CSL students, but it is not fair or ethical or consistent with the school’s fiduciary duty to withhold this information from CSL students considering a transfer (or, for that matter, current Coastal students).

Infilaw should be transparent about its plans to facilitate transfers within the Infilaw System, including moving expense reimbursement, alternative class schedules, tuition discounts, and whatever else students need to ease the transfer after Infilaw and CSL withheld critical information for nine months. Even assuming that Coastal does not face any immediate issues from regulators, Infilaw and CSL should recognize that simply offering students the opportunity to attend another law school in the Infilaw system is not enough to discharge its legal and ethical obligations to students. This is especially true given Infilaw’s financial interest in moving students to one of its schools that has access to federal student loan dollars from one that does not.

Students who choose to relocate 400 miles from Charlotte to Jacksonville will incur substantial costs, including transportation costs, moving expenses, and early lease termination fees. Students who seek to join the bar can ill afford to have negative credit reports or collection actions taken against them for breaching a lease. It is essential that administrators promptly develop and communicate a fair, simple, and transparent approach for students to file for reimbursement.

Charlotte School of Law should clarify whether it will permit and facilitate students who seek to visit another law school this semester. At least a handful of current CSL students have inquired with other law schools about visiting this coming semester. As one law school in North Carolina told us, the obstacles to a visit are not with their school — they are prepared to promptly review and act upon any applications for a visit. Rather, the question is whether CSL will approve the visit, accept the credits towards CSL degree requirements, and waive degree requirements that cannot be met at the visiting school, such as the course on North Carolina distinctions.

The school has sent mixed messages to students about the possibility of visiting at another school. CSL should publish clear guidance on visits as soon as possible, and should do everything possible to facilitate visits for students who request them. We asked Traci Fleury, assistant dean of academic services, for clarification. She did not respond to our phone call.

Charlotte School of Law should devote more resources to student service and administrative offices. Completed applications, whether for a visit or a transfer, typically require a letter of good standing, an official transcript, and, for visits, a letter promising to accept credits from the visiting school. Students report to us that they are still waiting on one or more of these items from CSL. Dean Fleury indicated in an email to a student that a team of five people is working through transfer packets for students. But time is of the essence, and Infilaw schools have been accused of purposefully impeding transfers in the past. Thus the school needs to devote even more resources so that inattentiveness does not prevent students from making informed choices about their futures.

Charlotte School of Law should clarify why it indicated that the school will submit a “teach-out” plan to the ABA in March. A teach-out plan helps students find a reasonable opportunity to complete their program of study. The ABA accreditation rules require a teach-out plan for any school that loses access to the federal student loan program. However, Rule 34 also requires a teach-out if the school intends to cease operations. CSL has already informed students who had been planning to start this month that the “spring start” for which they had been admitted has been canceled. With deadlines for transfer and visits looming, and nearby schools preparing to begin classes as early as tomorrow, CSL should clarify whether the school plans to cease operations in the near future, or if it is even considering such a step, as this will obviously have an impact on the decisions that students make.

While we understand that the situation is fluid, and that the school’s plans may be contingent on a variety of factors that are outside of its control (such as regaining federal funding), CSL must not let uncertainty prevent timely release of information. If in doubt, CSL should err on the side of full disclosure and immediately release any information that could conceivably affect its students’ decisions.

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Council Approves New Bar Passage Standard

October 21st, 2016 / By

The Council of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has approved a hotly debated proposal to tighten the accreditation standard governing bar passage rates. When the new standard takes effect, schools will have to demonstrate that seventy-five percent of graduates who choose to take a bar exam pass that exam within two years.

Opponents of the standard argued that it might reduce racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession. Council members, however, largely rejected that argument. Raymond Pierce, former dean of the North Carolina Central University School of Law, distinguished between programs that give students “an opportunity” and those offering “a false chance.”

For more, see this story.

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ABA Moves Forward on Revised Accreditation Standards

September 10th, 2016 / By

The ABA Section of Legal Education’s Standards Review and Data Policy Committee voted unanimously today to recommend that the Section’s Council approve revisions to Standards 501 and 316.

This comes on the heels of a multi-month notice and comment period, which saw a number of comments about the revisions.

The committee recommended that the revised standards be adopted as proposed.

By taking this action, the committee acknowledges that its primary responsibilities are protecting the public and students, not law schools.

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Hippocrates

April 17th, 2016 / By

In a forthcoming article, I discuss the ethical duty that professionals have to educate new members of their profession. The ancient Hippocratic oath recognized this duty, commanding all physicians “to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning . . . to pupils who have signed the covenant.” Contemporary versions of the oath enforce a similar obligation, while moral and economic principles support the existence of this duty.

Surprisingly, the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct do not recognize this duty among lawyers. This is a worrisome flaw. Without an established duty to educate new lawyers, our profession cannot effectively serve clients. Nor can we justify our status as professionals. Professions are communities rather than mere occupations–and an essential feature of those communities is their commitment to ongoing education.

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The Fall Of Systemic Deception At Law Schools

March 29th, 2016 / By

Originally published on Above the Law.

Last week, Anna Alaburda lost her lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law. From what one juror said of deliberations, the jury only considered deliberate falsification of the data underlying the statistics she consulted before law school. Systemic deception by law schools, blessed by the ABA, was not on trial. While I am disappointed in the result — I think it would have been an important symbol — I want to talk about the changes that we’ve seen over the last six years on the transparency front. We did not win on every count, but we long-ago declared victory. Here’s why. (more…)

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The ABA Intends To Hold Law Schools Accountable

March 16th, 2016 / By

The good news keeps coming for law school reform advocates. The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has taken its next affirmative step towards holding law schools accountable for their exploitative admissions and retention choices.

Soon, the Council for the Section of Legal Education will publish the proposed ABA accreditation standard changes for public comment. The Council will assess any new information it obtains and consider approving the new standards in October. Although the Council is the final authority for law school accreditation, the ABA House of Delegates will vote in February. The process allows the House a formal but non-binding say in new standards.

Let’s review the proposals. (more…)

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Path Cleared for Paid Externships

March 15th, 2016 / By

The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar took several significant actions at its March 11–12 meeting. The first of these was approval of several changes in Standards 304 and 305, which govern experiential learning and non-classroom educational experiences. Some of the changes adjust guidelines for supervision of externships; the most controversial allows schools to award externship credit for paid positions.

I have written several times to express my support for this change. Individual schools may still choose to ban paid externships, but the path should soon be open for schools to integrate these externships within their educational programs. The ABA House of Delegates will vote on the change, probably at its August 2016 meeting, but that vote does not bind the Council. [Updated at 4:45 p.m. to correct meaning of ABA’s vote.]

The responsibility now lies with law schools to implement this change wisely. I supported the change because I hope it will help us find innovative ways to educate students more thoroughly for law practice, as well as to help employers develop lasting frameworks for education in the workplace. We won’t accomplish either of those goals unless law schools devote real resources, energy, and collaboration to working with employers on these externships.

If your law school has an innovative idea for creating paid externships–or if you’re an individual with such an idea–please send me an email (merritt.52@osu.edu). I hope to feature good ideas here and promote discussion around them. Few ideas are perfect at their inception but, through discussion and sharing, perhaps we can refine ideas that will achieve our educational goals. Consider it online workshopping of pedagogic ideas!

 

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ABA Poised To Tighten Accreditation

March 8th, 2016 / By

Originally published on Above the Law.

In the face of financial pressure from rapidly falling enrollment, law schools have made ethically questionable admissions and student retention decisions. Bar exam pass rates have suffered already; MBE scores are at their lowest point since 1988. With an enormous drop in admissions standards between 2012 and 2013, as well as in the two subsequent years, bar pass rates for the next three years will be even worse.

The current ABA accreditation standards can theoretically hold dozens of schools accountable through the bar passage standard (Standard 316) and the non-exploitation standard (Standard 501). But the bar passage standard, with its six loopholes, is almost impossible to fail. Meanwhile, the ABA Section of Legal Education is paralyzed without an enforceable line between “capable” and “not capable” — the relevant distinction under the non-exploitation standard.

To the Section’s credit, the organization has responded well to criticism — publicly and privately. At the first meeting after my organization asked the Section’s Council to address trends in law school admissions and retention policies, the Council asked a committee to propose changes to the law school accreditation standards. The Standards Review Committee (SRC) has since made three key recommendations:

1) The SRC submitted a new cumulative bar passage standard to the Council. Under the proposal, at least 75% of all graduates that take a bar exam must pass it within two years. This eliminates the six loopholes.

2) The SRC submitted a new interpretation to the non-exploitation standard to the Council. Under the proposal, there would be a rebuttable presumption that a school that experiences a certain percentage of non-transfer attrition has made exploitative admissions choices.

3) The SRC declined to submit new bar passage outcome transparency measures to the Council. Instead, the SRC advised the Council that it already has the authority to issue new transparency requirements under Standard 509. As I wrote previously, I agree and the Council should publish new information as soon as possible.

The Council will consider these proposals at its Friday meeting in Arizona. If satisfied with the first two proposals, the Council will send them out for a few months of notice and comment. If satisfied with the SRC’s analysis of the Council’s existing authority under Standard 509, the Council can immediately take the necessary steps to authorize new disclosures.

Changes to Standard 316 and Standard 501 will see significant pushback. While greater transparency may help some students make better choices, the other two proposals provide objective tools to stop law schools from exploiting students. The combination poses a significant financial threat to any school choosing money over ethics to survive. Unless the admissions climate drastically and rapidly changes, these new standards will cause exploitative schools to shrink further, merge, or shut down.

One argument against both standards is the limit on opportunity. Schools can take fewer chances on students who do not fit traditional profiles if bar passage rates and degree completion must be more seriously considered during admissions and retention decisions. Before the enrollment crash that began in 2011, however, schools were able to fulfill these lofty ideals without preying upon students with low expectations of completing law school or passing the bar. The “opportunity” offered to students with low predictors of academic success is failing the bar exam up to four times, accumulating six figures of debt, and never obtaining a law job. This is an opportunity for schools to bring in cash from federal student loans, not to increase opportunities for students.

Educational opportunity is too important to let opportunists capture the term. Reclaiming the term from reckless schools concerned primarily with survival is essential for an accreditation process that’s supposed to protect the public, not the law schools. If a school cannot muster a 75% bar passage rate after its graduates have had the opportunity to take the bar exam four times, the school does not deserve accreditation. If a school must rely on failing significant portions of the class to ensure compliant bar passage rates, the school does not deserve accreditation.

When a school cannot figure out how to maintain accreditation under such reasonable rules, it should close. Let the void be filled by the schools that can responsibly grow enrollment or new schools with new economic models.

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Attrition May Jeopardize Accreditation Status Of Dozens Of Law Schools

February 24th, 2016 / By

This column originally appeared on Above the Law

Earlier this month, the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar took an important step towards holding law schools accountable through the accreditation standards. The committee charged with writing the law school accreditation standards voted to send a slate of accountability measures to the Council of the Section of Legal Education — the final authority for law school accreditation.

Last week I wrote about the proposed changes to the minimum bar passage standard and the transparency standard. This week, I discuss the Standards Review Committee’s proposals for refining the non-exploitation standard, Standard 501. (more…)

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