Two weeks ago in a nearly unprecedented backhand, the American Bar Association punished two law schools 723 miles apart for similar indiscretions.
One was put on probation for two years. The other was censured.
The ABA is the designated watchdog of professional standards for those who argue before the bar of justice and those who teach the skill. The ABA seldom punishes schools with probation — a perceived laxity that the federal government had recently scolded — but announcing to everyone why punishment was imposed is an even rarer phenomenon.
The ABA said both schools were not doing any of their central jobs well enough during the assessment period to guarantee continued accreditation. Fix it, or else.
The two schools could not be more dissimilar, except for two flaws. The ABA’s admissions guards said both were letting too many unprepared students into school and producing too few prepared to pass the bar.
One was a fast-growing, 10-year-old for-profit operation in the Deep South. The other was founded in 1879 inside a respected, church-affiliated, liberal arts university in the Midwest.
One was the Charlotte School of Law. The other was Valparaiso University School of Law.
The two share one other commonality besides their troubles.
Jim Conison served as dean at both schools at the time their academic admission policies and graduation levels were called into question.
Conison was leaving Valparaiso in 2013 after 15 years as policy-setting dean just as the ABA’s accreditation posse was questioning VU’s performance. He then took the Charlotte job where the ABA now has ordered improvements or risk losing accreditation.
AbovetheLaw.com, which the ABA rates among the top news sources for lawyers, says Charlotte’s 33 percent bar passage rate in 2016 was its worst in 10 years of lackluster performance, and Conison claiming it’s improving is out of order. “It’s like comparing rotten applies to rotten oranges,” the blog reported.
Andrea Lyon, his VU successor, is shocked about her school’s censure because she’s helping to repair all the flaws.
Conison is shocked about his school’s probation because he’s helping to repair all the flaws.
Both are scholarly. You don’t get to be law school commander without gravitas. Conison might be even more surprised because his resume is loaded with achievements in his chosen field of expertise: law school education.
Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, told the National Law Journal both schools could be given the death penalty if they don’t prove their improvements are working within two years. He did not seem to equivocate or stutter.
“The questions to the schools are: ‘What determinations are you making that give you confidence that the students you are admitting today — in light of your experience — are students who are capable of graduating from your program and passing the bar?'” Currier told the Journal.
Both Lyon and Conison say their entrance scores are rising along with progress at pushing students toward bar passage. They both can present documentation to prove it. But law schools face rising industry and cultural inertia. The long-term attraction of good pay and reliably rewarding careers is diminishing.
According to its gloomy forecast for budding lawyers, the New York Times reported that, as of this April, fewer than 70 percent of Valparaiso law graduates from the previous spring were employed and fewer than half were in jobs that required a law license. Only three of 131 graduates worked in large firms, which tend to pay more generous salaries.
Law school student debt is an ever-deepening ravine, from about $95,000 among borrowers at the average school in 2010 to about $112,000 in 2014, according to the advocacy group Law School Transparency.
Every number is pointing down, particularly jobs. While law school applications have slid by nearly 40 percent nationally since 2010, enrollment has dropped by only about 30 percent and full-time faculty members have decreased by less than 15 percent, according to ABA data.
VU’s applicant pool is also down, which is why the school cut 21 faculty members and expects its law school population to drop by a third within two years.
VU’s law school might be facing two unpalatable choices. Admit more unprepared students, which fulfills goals for diversity and inclusion, but damages graduation rates and quality. The school apparently already tried that model without success.
By 2014, only 61 percent of its grads passed the bar after 77 percent passed a year earlier.
Or, as the New York Times suggested bleakly, VU could simply face reality and close its law school.
David Rutter was editor for 40 years at six newspapers.