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USLaw schools will face tougher sanctions if too many graduates fail bar exam

21:31  21 may  2019
21:31  21 may  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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PHOENIX – The accrediting body for the nation's law schools has approved tougher standards for schools where too many graduates fail the bar exam.

After more than two years of controversy and debate, the American Bar Association recently approved a new standard that requires schools to have 75% of their graduates who take the bar exam pass it within two years or risk their ABA accreditation being revoked. Schools previously had up to five years to meet the standard.

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The change takes effect beginning with students who graduated in 2017.

Supporters of the change say the five-year time frame to meet the standard was too long and allowed schools with dismal bar exam-passage rates to keep operating.

"This is welcome news for consumer protection. Law schools that fail to prepare their students to enter the profession should be held accountable," said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit that tracks data related to law schools.

Barry Currier, managing director for ABA law school accreditation, said in a statement that the changes provide more-straightforward expectations for law schools.

"Most students go to law school to become lawyers. Becoming a lawyer requires passing the bar exam," he said.

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The change comes after years of criticism that the ABA has allowed law schools to admit too many lower-achieving students who leave school deeply in debt and struggling to pass the bar exam, which is required to practice law in most states.

But critics worry struggling schools will respond by requiring higher scores on the law-school entrance exam. This will hurt diversity in law schools, they say, because minority and economically disadvantaged students historically score lower on the Law School Admission Test.

The ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which accredits law schools, adopted the changes May 17 at its meeting in Chicago over the objections of the ABA's House of Delegates, a 600-member body that makes recommendations on law-school standards. The House of Delegates  this year overwhelmingly rejected the proposed change, with 88 in favor and 334 opposed.

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At that January meeting, former ABA President Paulette Brown, the first African American woman to hold that position, called the proposed change "draconian."

“I know and understand fully that the council has the right to ignore what we say," she said. "That does not absolve us of our responsibility to give them a very clear and strong message that we will not idly stand by while they decimate the diversity in the legal profession.”

How many law schools are failing?

It's too soon to say which law schools will fail under the new standard.

The first test will come in spring 2020, when the ABA releases two-year pass results for Class of 2017 graduates. ABA officials say schools that fail the new standard will have up to two years to come into compliance or risk losing accreditation.

Loss of accreditation would be a death knell for a school because most states require students to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school in order to take the bar exam.

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Nationwide, about 88% of law-school students pass the bar within two years of graduation.

Based on 2016 results, ABA data shows that out of about 200 law schools, 14 would fail under the new standard if their rates don't improve. Three of the 14 schools: Arizona Summit, Indiana's Valparaiso University Law School and Whittier Law School in Southern California have already announced plans to close.

Why make the change?

The ABA for years required law schools to publish pass rates only for those taking the bar exam for the first time.

Beginning in 2018, schools also were required to report an "ultimate bar pass rate," or the percentage of graduates who took and passed the exam within two years.

ABA officials said the two-year rates were designed to give consumers more information. It also allowed the ABA to analyze how many schools didn't report 75% of their students passing the exam within two years.

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USA TODAY analyzed the data as part of an investigation of law schools this year and found schools that fell below that threshold included large state universities, private for-profits and independent colleges enrolling, in all, about 8,000 students, or 7% of U.S. law-school students.

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The move to a tougher standard came after the ABA received harsh criticism in 2016 from a U.S. Department of Education panel. Panel members had pointed questions about rising student-loan debt and why law schools were enrolling more students at risk of not passing the bar.

Members of that panel, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, were so concerned that they recommended suspending the ABA's ability to accredit new law schools for a year. But the U.S. Department of Education didn't follow the panel's recommendation and allowed the ABA to continue accrediting law schools.

Later that year, the ABA Council announced plans to push for tougher standards on bar-passage rates.

Efforts to pass the new standard were unsuccessful in 2017, so the controversial proposal returned for consideration this year and was approved at the ABA Council.

Follow Anne Ryman on Twitter: @anneryman

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Law schools will face tougher sanctions if too many graduates fail bar exam

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