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Accreditation

[Permission to use their data to explain the system was generously given by Sarah Zearfoss at U. Michigan and Richard Geiger at Cornell. My thanks to both]

What does it mean for a law school to be "accredited"? Probably a lot of things, but what concerns us is that accreditation is a prerequisite for taking the bar exam in most states, and taking the bar exam is a prerequisite for practicing law.

Many (if not all) states accredit law schools. The ABA (American Bar Association) also accredits law schools. What's the difference? If a person attends an ABA-approved law school, that person can apply to practice law in any state. There are other individual requirements, like fit moral character, but the school itself has passed its hurdle.

Some schools are accredited by their state, but not by the ABA. This was true of Atlanta's John Marshall Law School for many years, and is still true of a number of schools, most of which are in California.

Between accreditation and "unaccredited" is a purgatory of sorts called "provisional accreditation." This status is granted to certain schools, usually new, that have jumped through enough hurdles to be legitimized but not enough to be "in." If you've been in a frat, think of it as pledging.

So why is this such a big deal just now? Because recent changes (almost certainly political, but I'm not going into that) have made it harder for new schools to keep their accreditation and easier for an already-accredited school to lose its accreditation. La Verne already lost its ABA accreditation, and grads will not be permitted to take the Bar Exam outside of California.

First of all, the ABA didn't just designate itself as the accrediting agency. The federal government, specifically the Dept. of Education, did that in Standard ยง602.16: Accreditation and pre-accreditation standards. That says (and I've lifted this info from a web page called "the Faculty Lounge,")

(a) The agency must demonstrate that it has standards for accreditation, ...that are sufficiently rigorous to ensure that the agency is a reliable authority regarding the quality of the ... programs it accredits. The agency meets this requirement if -

(1) The agency's accreditation standards effectively address the quality of the institution or program in the following areas:

(i) Success with respect to student achievement in relation to the institution's mission, which may include different standards for different institutions or programs, as established by the institution, including, as appropriate, consideration of course completion, State licensing examination, and job placement rates. (emphasis in original).

Translation: the D.o.E. will only allow the ABA to remain the "accrediting body" if it thinks the ABA is being sufficiently diligent in maintaining and enforcing standards.

So, for those political reasons I'm not going to touch, there was a year or two of arguing about how to enforce a Bar Passage rate while still allowing a school some latitude in meeting its mission. The result was ABA Interpretation 301-6. In order to meet that standard, a law school has to pass a very complex test that I'm not going to print here. Instead, I'm going to show you how it works and who might be in trouble.

First, every already-accredited law school gets re-accredited every seven years. These law schools have to fill out a form for the five years preceding their accreditation review year. In non-legalese, that means if a school is up for review in 2012, it must report Bar Passage data for 2006-2011. The chart looks like this:

A B C D E F
Calendar
Year
Total Graduates
in Calendar Year
# of Grads NOT taking the Bar Exam Grads from previous years taking the bar for the First time Total First-time Takers (B-C+D) 70% of # in Column E
2007          
2008          
2009          
2010          
2011          

I swear I did not make that up. It's lifted almost verbatim from a published ABA document, although if you want to pass it on to SNL, I wouldn't object.

Now here is where it gets tricky: a school can report results for first-time test-takers OR for people who ultimately pass the Bar, as it chooses. Since results for first-time test-takers are published, that's where I'm going to start. That's also the first and last step for schools with high bar pass rates.

The data below is for Cornell law school. It was reported in the ABA-LSAC Official Guide Archives, and reprinted here with permission from Richard Geiger, Associate Dean, Communications & Enrollment. (Numbers in blue-green chart color were actually reported; numbers in brown were inferred from existing data. E.g., in 2010, 186 people graduated, and 187 took the Bar Exam for the first time, so I "invented" one person from a previous year).

Also, because this rule is new, not all the data for earlier years is published; the old rule only required reporting for 50% of all exam-takers, not 70%. We'll just have to work with what we have.

A B C D E F
Calendar
Year
Total Graduates
in Calendar Year
# of Grads NOT taking the Bar Exam Grads from previous years taking the bar for the First time Total First-time Takers (B-C+D) 70% of # in Column E
2007 190 ? ? ? 133
2008 210 ? ? ? 147
2009 192 ? ? 188 133
2010 185 0? 3? 187 132
2011 186 0? 1? 187 132

The chart above just tells us what data we have to look at! Now let's look at that data:

A B C D E F G
Calendar
Year

Total First-time Takers
(? = # of grads)

# of test-takers at least # in Column F
above

Jurisdictions
(states) in which they took the Bar Exam
State's Bar Pass Rate School's Bar Pass Rate Diff-
erence
2007 210? 158 New York
74%
94%
+20%
2008 192? 127
7 or more
New York
other state*
77%
unknown
92%
unknown
+15%
unknown
2009 188 132 New York 86% 91% +5%
2010 187 132 New York 89% 99% +10%
2011 187 126
22
(total > 132)
New York
California
87%
73%
94%
73%
+7%
< 1%

*Since schools were only required to report data for a majority (51%) of Bar-takers in these earlier years, there is no public data available. Cornell grads have, in the past, taken the California and Massachusetts bar exams as the second-highest, but DC and Illinois are also possible. None of these would change the result; Cornell grads always pass the bar at an excellent rate.

Cornell has now satisfied ABA Rule 301-6. They have reported results for at least 70% of their first-time Bar-takers in the top chart, and have shown that they pass the bar at a rate higher than the state's average, and way higher than they need in order to remain accredited.

Cornell's job is easier than many other schools'. In three of the five reporting years, more than 70% of their Bar-exam-takers took the New York Bar, so they only had to report a single number. What happens when a school places its grads over a broad range of jurisdictions?

That's where Michigan comes in. Sarah Zearfoss, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions, gave me permission to report UM's data here. As in Cornell's case, all data was reported in the ABA-LSAC Official Guide Archives. Numbers in blue-green chart color were actually reported; numbers in brown were inferred from existing data.

The first chart is going to look a lot like Cornell's, although with a larger class size:

A B C D E F
Calendar
Year
Total Graduates
in Calendar Year
# of Grads NOT taking the Bar Exam Grads from previous years taking the bar for the First time Total First-time Takers (B-C+D) 70% of # in Column E
2007 431 J.D.s 23? (9 & 14) not reported* 225 158
2008 386 J.D.s 7 in grad school not reported* 226 159
2009 387 J.D.s 3 in grad school not reported* 275 193
2010 410 J.D.s 6 in grad school 2? 406 285
2011 377 J.D.s 2 15? 390 273

*As with Cornell, in 2009 and earlier years schools only had to report data for 51% of graduates.

Michigan grads are spread all over the country!

A B C D E F G
Calendar
Year

Total First-time Takers
(? = # of grads)

# of test-takers (at least # in Column F
above)

Jurisdictions
(states) in which they took the Bar Exam
State's Bar Pass Rate School's Bar Pass Rate Diff-
erence
2007 431 115
95
(210 total)
New York
Illinois
,,
74%
85%
ccc
97%
98%
ccc
+23%
+13%
ccc
2008 386 130
96
(226 total)
New York
Illinois
,,
77%
87%
cc,m/ c
97%
95%
ccc

+20%
+8%
ccc

2009 387 92
70
63
(225 total)
New York
California
Illinois
nn
86%
71%
89%
etc
96%
86%
98%
etc
+10%
+15%
+9%
etc
2010 406

147
86
65
38

(336 total)

New York
Illinois
California
(Michigan
not needed)
89%
91%
78%
82%
etc

91%
98%
82%
95%
%

+2%
+7%
+4%
+13%
%
2011 377


133
66
57
36
(292 total)
New York
Illinois
California
Michigan

87%
91%
73%
87%

92%
98%
93%
94%

+5%
+7%
+20%
+7%

As you see, Michigan's broader geographical placement gives someone a lot more work to do filling out the chart. But as with Cornell, it passes with flying colors in all jurisdictions.

Each of these schools could have chosen Option B: report bar pass eventually, rather than for first-time test-takers only. But since the first-time group met the simpler requirement, why do the more complicated reporting job of looking for repeat takers? (Besides, I have no idea where that data is published, so I couldn't report it even if the school tracks it.) But should you happen to care, the document I'm summarizing for you does tell how to do it.

There's also an Option C. We didn't look at it because it was totally irrelevant for Michigan and Cornell, with all those pretty +10% and +20% numbers. That standard is when a school's bar pass rate is lower than the state's; i.e., when that symbol is "-" instead of "+". That's when a school can get into trouble, and is what cost LaVerne its accreditation.


The University of LaVerne was provisionally accredited through most of the time period we'll see here. Provisionally-accredited schools have to meet all the same standards EXCEPT that since a provisionally accredited school rarely* has five years of Bar passage data, they report on as many years as they do have.

* "Rarely" because, in theory, a school could stay provisionally accredited a long time, or it can fall down and up again, both of which I have seen, but it's usually a three or four year period.

Provisionally-accredited schools are not LSAC members, but they do report ABA data, and LSAC has stored that data in its archives. So I'm getting pretty much the same data from pretty much the same place as I did for Cornell and Michigan.

A B C D E F
Calendar
Year
Total Graduates
in Calendar Year
# of Grads NOT taking the Bar Exam Grads from previous years taking the bar for the First time Total First-time Takers (B-C+D) 70% of # in Column E
2006 not yet provisionally approved
2007 67 J.D.s not reported* not reported* 33 23
2008 62 4 1? not reported* 59 42
2009 77 2 (+6 unknown?) not reported* 65 46
2010 76 5 0 71 50

*As with Cornell, in 2009 and earlier years schools only had to report data for 51% of graduates.

A B C D E F G
Calendar
Year

Total First-time Takers
(? = # of grads)

# of test-takers at least # in Column F
above

Jurisdictions
(states) in which they took the Bar Exam
State's Bar Pass Rate School's Bar Pass Rate Diff-
erence
2006 not yet provisionally approved


2007 67 33 California
62% 27% —35%
2008 62 59 California
65% 56% — 9%
2009 65 62 California
71% 55% — 16%
2010 71 66 California
78% 61% — 17%

Since, with the 2010 California Bar results, LaVerne could not reach either Standard 301-6 (2):

  • at least two out of five years bar passage within 15% of the state bar rate,

nor could they meet standard 301-6 (1):

  • 75% or more passing on the first try or ultimately,

their accreditation was withdrawn.

In theory there were several "what if's" that should be considered. The original language says

in relation to the institution's mission,... as established by the institution,...

and there is some remote possibility that repeat takers could someday reach 75% bar passage. But for now, the ABA withdrew the provisional accreditation.

What does this mean for LaVerne students? If the school remains accredited in California, they may be able to take the California Bar exam. (All those "could's" and "maybe's" mean that I haven't studied any non-ABA-approved standards.)

If an individual student has a good academic record (GPA plus a law professor as a recommender), the student might be able to transfer to another school. I have heard of people doing well in non-ABA schools and successfully transferring and passing the bar.

But that's a lot of if's and maybe's. I don't like my clients to face those odds, so I try to see which schools are treading too close to the line for comfort.

In preparing these charts, I've covered some turf seen on other web pages, but have not "lifted" my data from any of them. Since I don't know where and how they got their data, I started from scratch.


So which schools are in danger and why? Click here for the final results.

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