Every seven years, each law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) must, pursuant to authority delegated to the ABA by the US Department of Education, undergo a full ABA site visit and examination to determine whether the school is in sufficient compliance with ABA standards to warrant reaccreditation. Over the past 18 months, I have been involved in four such reaccreditation processes; I served on three site teams at other schools, and my own school (the University of Illinois) hosted its own site visit last month. One reason I agreed to serve on site teams for other schools was a sense of duty, but another motivation was my desire to refamiliarize myself with site visit and accreditation logistics given that we at Illinois were ourselves up for reaccreditation. Having recently been on both sides of the process, I offer below a handful of observations about the current state of the ABA accreditation business, observations which I break down into some good, some bad, and some ugly.
Perhaps the best thing about the reaccreditation process is that it allows both the school that is being reviewed and the members of the site team to share helpful experiences and advice about issues in legal education that affect nearly all of us. To be sure, different schools face distinct challenges (more on that below), and each school is understandably wary of exchanging some information/strategies with people from directly competitive institutions. But within those constraints the site visit nonetheless presents a valuable opportunity to get and give peer advice, to the extent that people would like it. (That last clause represents an important caveat, since the official purpose of the site visit focuses on ABA standard compliance, and advice that goes beyond that question should not be offered if it is not wanted.)
Closely related to this learning opportunity is the chance a site visit affords a school to showcase good things it has been doing. One frustration about being a law dean these days is that even when your faculty hiring and scholarly productivity, student admissions, bar passage and employment outcomes are becoming very strong, it is difficult to get other people to notice; many of us are working so hard internally that we sometimes miss positive changes at other schools. At Illinois, for example, headlines about the state’s political melodramas—which mirror similar dynamics in other states and on the national scene—often overwhelm casual observers from other parts of the country who don’t understand how those things are in no way slowing down our own progress and momentum. For this reason, there was a part of me that greatly looked forward to having our site visit, so that knowledgeable and fair-minded observers, both on the site team and on the ABA accreditation committee, would necessarily spend time looking at our recent accomplishments, many of which buck national trends.
A third positive aspect of the reaccreditation process is that in recent years the role of the site visit team has been more clearly defined, and the report that it produces is more tightly focused. It used to be that site teams were given so much discretion that different teams asked different questions and focused on different criteria, such that what was seen as a potential problem by one site team visiting one school would not have occupied any attention at all by another. But by refining the voluminous questionnaire that each law school must fill out, and by harmonizing the report that site teams produce to bring them in close alignment with the questionnaire, the ABA is now able to ensure more consistency across site teams.
A final positive aspect relates to the ABA’s recent emphasis on formative and summative assessments. Traditionally, law schools have (for various reasons, perhaps most obviously that law professors don’t have graduate student assistants to help grade papers) relied heavily on single high-stakes final exams in each course as the dominant basis for student evaluation, and have not given a lot of attention to alternative methods of assessing students. But assessment methods other than in-class time-intensive final exams may help both students and instructors better understand what materials and skills are being mastered, when and how during the semester, and also how these materials and skills as to which mastery is demonstrated in fact relate to what the school really wants students to get out of their classes. Law schools are moving slowly in the direction of taking assessment more seriously, and I very much doubt they would be moving at all without the prodding of ABA standards and the reaccreditation process.
On the other side of the balance, there remains a fair amount of wiggle room in interpreting and applying many of the ABA standards themselves. Site teams are told that they are merely fact finders, and that it is the accreditation committee that ultimately decides whether a school is in or out of compliance with one or more ABA standards. And the site team members with whom I have worked over the past year-and-a-half genuinely seem to understand the limited scope of their role. But because many of the standards themselves are open to narrow or broad interpretations (with some, for example, being supplemented by “guidance” documents that may or may not be binding on the law schools), even the fact-finding role is a complicated one. Whether a particular fact is relevant to compliance with a particular standard depends on what that standard actually means/requires, and to the extent that there is uncertainty about the proper interpretation of a standard, there is room for some site teams to probe more or less deeply.
Compounding (or perhaps explaining) this imprecision in the standards is the fact that the accreditation process operates similarly for all 200 or so ABA-approved schools, even though schools are not always similarly situated to each other along many important dimensions. For various understandable reasons, it might be very difficult to subject some schools to a less rigorous reaccreditation inquiry than others. On the other hand, perhaps it is at least worth considering whether if a school’s vital signs (e.g., bar passage and placement data, incoming student quality, student and faculty diversity, scholarly output, and financial reserves) are all strong based on easy-to-measure data, there should be a “fast-track” for reaccreditation without the need for a more involved process.
The reason I at least float this possibility just mentioned is that the cost of the reaccreditation process is far from negligible. Let us put to one side the cost of hosting the site team (which—given travel, accommodations and the understandable desire to make people who are doing a favor to a school by giving of their time to serve in this process feel comfortable and well-fed—can be substantial). The larger costs of the process inhere in the hundreds/thousands of person-hours it takes to compile all the relevant documents (even though some of the data has been provided to the ABA in other forms), provide the logistical support for the site visit, respond to all the follow-up questions by the site team and then by the accreditation committee, etc. All of this is to say nothing of the anxiety that many schools feel from having outside people (even people whose intentions and philosophical approaches to the site visit task are laudable) come check under the hood.
I close on a promising note; I understand the ABA is considering enlarging the time between full-blown reaccreditation examinations from seven to ten years. In addition to reducing sarcastic comparisons between reaccreditation visits and certain locust/cicada infestations, this move seems a sensible step in the direction of focusing the ABA’s efforts on the relatively small number of law schools whose reaccreditation is open to any meaningful question.