Law schools are sizing up recent changes to American Bar Association accreditation standards
Recent changes to the American Bar Association’s law school accreditation rules should mean minor adjustments for most of North Carolina’s law schools, if first impressions of several school leaders are correct.
On Aug. 11 in Boston — after six years of comprehensive review — the ABA’s House of Delegates voted in new standards and Rules of Procedure for accrediting U.S. law schools.
“I think the bulk of it is housekeeping; I don’t think there are any remarkable new changes here,” said Campbell Law Dean Rich Leonard. “The standards are moving us in a direction I think we are already moving in.”
One of the more deliberated revisions, Standard 303(a), increases the number of required credit hours for experiential training courses — simulation courses, law clinics or field placements — from one to six.
Of the five North Carolina schools that responded to requests for interviews, three already meet or exceed this standard — Charlotte School of Law, Elon University School of Law and Campbell University Law School.
Kama Pierce, associate dean of academic affairs at Charlotte Law, said Charlotte’s students enter their third year with four experiential credit hours, with the potential to take up to 15 more.
“Thinking like a lawyer is practicing like a lawyer, and you can only do that through experiential training,” Pierce said.
Leonard said Campbell Law students would meet the new standard after taking a required four-hour trial advocacy course and one externship.
“And that’s before you get to the clinics and second externships,” he said.
Elon Law spokesman Philip Craft said, “In addition to Elon’s current requirement of four experiential credits, 94 percent of Elon Law students obtain additional experience through externships, internships, clerkships and clinics.”
More than a passing grade
The ABA also aims to measure student learning outcomes and evaluate individual programs more objectively by using multiple methods including the review of school records, the evaluation of student learning portfolios, student input regarding the sufficiency of their education and student performance in capstone courses or similar courses.
The association is also placing emphasis is also being placed on possible methods such as placement rates; surveys of attorneys, judges and alumni; assessment of student performance by judges, attorneys or law professors from other schools and bar passage rates.
These are guidelines, and the interpretation makes it clear that schools are not bound by a particular methodology in order to comply with the new standards.
“That might be the big one that we’re trying to digest,” Leonard said. “It seems to require more than just a passing grade in every course … but we’re a teaching school and we talk about it and we take looks at our outcomes already and change the techniques and methodology. We may just have to figure out how to show that more objectively.”
Camille Davidson, Charlotte’s associate dean for academic services and faculty development, said the school’s curriculum provides real-world training and a method of objective assessment. Since the school was established, she said, faculty members have held discussions regarding outcomes they’d like students to have each semester.
“In many schools the only assessment you have is at the final exam, and that’s too late to figure out what you didn’t get,” Davidson said. “Our faculty gets constant feedback through the semester and deliberately assesses students prior to the final examination.”
Another provision that has been talked about—Standard 306(e)—raises the number of credit hours a law school can award a student for distance learning from 12 to 15.
Campbell and UNC indicated that they don’t currently offer distance learning courses, though Leonard said Campbell is entertaining the idea.
“We haven’t felt compelled to go to distance learning yet but it’s the wave of the future and we have a workforce looking at it trying to figure out what our niche in it will be,” he said.
Elon University School of Law Dean Luke Bierman said Elon offers distance learning to augment in-class teaching. While the school’s focus will remain on “personal and direct interaction between faculty and students,” the school is exploring further incorporation of online experiences, he said.
Carlos Pauling, associate dean for academic programs and outcomes at Charlotte, said he’s heard the criticisms of distance learning but believes the student value is higher when the method is incorporated into a curriculum.
“We test those things by science and data and utilize metrics to see if some of those age-old traditions serve to be true … and sometimes they don’t tend to hold up as accurately as some of our data,” he said.
Both Charlotte and Wake Forest University School of Law use synchronous online courses that require real-time interaction from students, simulating the brick-and-mortar classroom experience.
“They must be actively engaged in the same way they would in the podium class,” Charlotte’s Davidson said. “It’s new to all of us but we are definitely ensuring the quality of our distance learning.”
Ron Wright, executive associate dean for academics at Wake Forest, said online learning is invaluable for students who want to continue taking classes while on a summer job or externship elsewhere.
LSAT standard change
A standard that would allow law schools that have undergraduate programs to fill up to 10 percent of its first-year class with students who have not taken the Law School Admission Test will likely go largely unexploited in North Carolina, though Wake Forest officials said they would study the new policy’s effects.
Leonard said Campbell’s law school already gets the yield it likes from its undergraduate campus.
“I just don’t see why we would ever go that route,” he said.
The revised standards and rules took immediate effect, and ABA officials said in a statement that the group realizes schools will need time bring certain standards into compliance. The association established a phase-in period and said that law school visits in 2014-2015 will primarily rely on the old standards.
The only revision not concurred upon was Standard 305, which forbids the granting of academic credit for a field placement program for which a student is compensated. The provision will be reconsidered by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher