Is the ABA to Blame for the High Cost of Legal Education?

The High Cost of Law SchoolDavid Segal is at it again. In his latest piece for The New York Times, he shifts the focus to the ABA and its detrimental impact on legal education. Segal notes that in order for a law school to even obtain provisional accreditation, it must meet a large number of standards, which inevitably raises tuition. Most states require a degree from an ABA-approved school in order to practice law, which leaves prospective lawyers with little choice when accruing debt in order to eventually find a job. And then to pay off those debts, they must earn an adequate salary, charging more than many in need of legal aid can afford. Segal points out the paradox: “The United States churns out roughly 45,000 lawyers a year, but survey after survey finds enormous unmet need for legal services, particularly in low- and middle-income communities.”

As opposed to other countries, in the U.S. there is generally only one option for legal services—hiring a lawyer trained by an ABA-approved law school. And many believe that ABA’s standards are “one-size-fits-all and overly rigid, which drives up the cost of both a diploma and of legal services.” For a school to be considered for provisional accreditation, it must be in operation for at least a year, which makes this whole process not only “expensive,” but “risky,” as well.

Segal brings up the case of Duncan School of Law, part of Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, which had been awaiting provisional accreditation. The school finds fault with the ABA’s methods, charging them for their raised expenses and tuition. However, as Above the Law points out, about half of Duncan’s budget goes to paying its faculty, which cannot be overlooked: “Segal does a lot to try to indirectly blame the high cost of professorial salaries on various rules, written and unwritten, about attaining ABA accreditation, but there’s no way to completely gloss over faculty greed and deans (who are themselves part of legal academia) being all too happy to keep paying into the system that keeps salaries high for all.” We cannot keep pointing fingers at different culprits in the case of exorbitant legal education, until faculty salaries are taken into account as well.

But, with all this blame directed at the ABA, it has “noted that it would be an antitrust violation to cap or limit the number of law schools.” So, one would expect the thumbs-up for Duncan. However, two days after the NYT article, the school was informed that the ABA had denied them provisional accreditation. Reasons for this move were not disclosed, but The National Law Journal reports that “the council had identified problems with the academic credentials of the school’s incoming students and the school’s ability to provide academic support to those students.” That’s not how Above the Law sees it: “The timing of this, three days after the New York Times published its article, creates the unmistakable impression that the ABA denied accreditation in retaliation for the school bitching to the Times.” Yet, apparently the ABA made their decision weeks before Duncan was notified.

Regardless of what transpired with Duncan, the NYT still brings up an important issue, one which is addressed by USC Law professor Gillian Hadfield. Instead of one avenue for training lawyers, Hadfield envisions “a range of options that would entail an array of educational degrees and a broad spectrum of prices and formats for legal services.” This way, those who want to work in the legal field but avoid hefty tuitions can do so, and everyone would be able to afford legal services at some level. Yet, Above the Law notes that this solution would “require a nationwide reinterpretation of legal services.” Plus, schools like Duncan Law would still want to train “full-service, do-it-all lawyers,” which is “very lucrative.” As it sums up, “the ABA doesn’t force prices to be high, so much as it refuses to require costs be controlled.”

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