Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Razing the Bar

The Massachusetts School of Law in Andover was founded in 1988 in order to provide a law school education at an affordable cost to many who could not otherwise afford the education. Its design and curriculum were influenced by the medical school educational model -- scholars, lawyers, and judges working side-by-side in educating students how to become practicing lawyers. The tuition at MSL is less than half of typical law school tuition.

In 1990, the Massachusetts Board of Regents of Higher Education authorized MSL to grant the Juris Doctor degree. MSL subsequently applied for American Bar Association approval while simultaneously challenging some of the ABA's accreditation standards, arguing that those standards are of questionable educational value, may violate antitrust laws, and needlessly increase tuition costs. MSL refused to comply with these standards, and the ABA denied approval of the school's accreditation. The lack of the ABA imprimatur means graduates are unable to take the bar exam in numerous states, preventing them from practicing law in those places. MSL has been fighting with the ABA since.

Among those standards were several related to student-faculty ratio. Under its standards in effect at that time, the ABA refused to count most of MSL’s full-time professors who practiced law, or any of MSL's 85 expert lawyers and judges who comprised MSL’s adjunct faculty members in computing its student-faculty ratio.

...In 1995, the Department of Justice and ABA reached a consent agreement -- prompted in part by a Massachusetts School of Law lawsuit that accused the ABA of antitrust violations -- in which the association agreed to overhaul its accreditation process....

...Yesterday, in their continuing clash with the ABA, school officials appeared before a US Department of Education committee in Washington, D.C, to denounce the association's "monopolistic" accreditation policies, which they say hinder minority, immigrant, and working-class enrollment. They also asked that the ABA be stripped of its right to accredit the nation's law schools.

Well it is certainly the case that MSL has picked a fight with the schoolyard bully, but I am rooting for them.

I have been a lawyer now for a quarter-century, and there are very few absolutes that I can assert about lawyers in general, but this is one of them:

The best lawyers that I have encountered during my career are those who came from meager or modest means and graduated from middle-tier law schools. Many of them are still paying off their loans, and are involved in areas of practice that are essential to the well being of society -- they work in the district attorneys' offices, the legal aid services, the public sector. They put out shingles in small towns are write wills for their middle class neighbors. And many of them run for (and win) public office.

I graduated from one of those top tier law schools. I received a superb legal education -- but it was book learning. When I graduated, it took me at least five years to learn how to actually be a lawyer -- what the practical application of my knowledge was and how to use it.

If MSL has designed a method of incorporating the practical into theoretical, and do it at a fraction of the cost, I think it behooves the American Bar Association to begin to think of its role in a different way. It ought to be enabling schools like MSL to make a legal education more accessible to people of modest means.

Who knows, perhaps in another fifty years, the public might actually respect the profession.

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