What Does It Mean If A Law School Is Non-Accredited?
Selecting a law school is certainly a big decision. In the United States, there are nearly 200 law schools that the American Bar Association (ABA) offers accredidation to. That fact alone is enough to justify any feelings of being overwhelmed by the task of trying to select just the right school for you! Then, to add to the mix, there are about 30 law schools in the USA that are not ABA-accredited.
Whether to consider pursuing a law school that is not ABA accredited is a question we encourage you to thoughtfully and seriously evaluate. In this post, we will discuss what ABA accreditation means, the risks and limitations of attending a law school that is not ABA accredited, the reasons why some may be drawn to a law school that is not ABA accredited, and we even include a few tips to help you select a law school that is a good fit for you.
What Does It Mean If A Law School Is Non-Accredited?
First, a bit of history.
The American Bar Association is a national professional association that provides resources to lawyers, law students, and those in the legal profession. The ABA was established in 1878. Then in 1883, the ABA created its first section – the Council of the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. About forty years later, in 1921, the ABA issued the first Standard for Legal Education and began identifying schools that met those standards.
By 1952 the United States Department of Education (USDE) formally recognized the Council of the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (Council). The USDE requires an accrediting body to be separate and independent from a professional association. So, while the term “ABA accredited” is used as a shorthand for convenience, technically it is the Council that maintains and updates the accreditation standards, and that reviews schools and issues accreditations to law schools.
What does accreditation mean?
Simply put, a school that is ABA accredited has demonstrated an ability to satisfy and maintain the standards established by the ABA. You can read all the standards and learn about the review process on the ABA’s website. In short, a school that has achieved ABA accreditation has demonstrated to the Council that students graduating from that school have the education necessary to sit for that jurisdiction’s bar exam. In other words, the Council reviews whether students receive the minimum legal education and the basic resources required to allow students an opportunity to enter the legal profession.
What does accreditation signal for prospective students?
When you are researching different law schools and exploring your options, if the school has received ABA accreditation, you can have confidence in the basic standards of that school. You can expect classes in the foundational, bar-tested, doctrinal topics (torts, property, criminal law, constitutional law, etc.) and basic legal writing instruction. You can anticipate learning in an environment with basic administrative structures and organization that one would expect of an establishment of higher education. Additionally, the school will have a bar passage rate of at least 75%.
Why are some schools not accredited?
The accreditation process can take several years to complete. A law school that is more recently established may not be accredited simply because it is still in its infant stages and has not yet had time to satisfy the standards set out by the Council. Alternatively, a law school may not be accredited because it has failed to meet certain required standards.
Knowing why a law school is not accredited could be a key piece of information in your law school search. It may turn out that the lack of accreditation is for reasons that don’t go against your overall goals of obtaining a legal education. In the alternative, the lack of ABA accreditation might be a critical barrier to reaching your ultimate goal. As such, it’s prudent to do research and gather the information necessary to know why a school you might be interested in isn’t accredited.
Risks And Limitations Of Attending A Law School That is Not ABA Accredited
Attending a law school that is not ABA accredited may pose several risks and limitations.
Quality of education.
One risk may be the quality of education provided at a law school that is not ABA accredited. This is not to say that your education is guaranteed to be of poor quality if you choose to attend a nonaccredited school! Additionally, this doesn’t mean that educational quality at an ABA-accredited institution is perfect. However, law schools not accredited by the ABA may not have the accreditation because the school hasn’t shown an ability to prepare students to enter the legal field as practicing attorneys. Such schools also may not attract as high a caliber of professors as ABA-accredited law schools. Additionally, a law school that is not ABA accredited may also not have the depth or breadth of resources to provide academic support such as on-campus tutoring, writing support, or bar prep courses.
Eligibility to sit for the bar exam.
Not only may students not be as well prepared to take the bar exam, but many states also won’t let a student even sit to take the bar exam if that student hasn’t graduated from an ABA-accredited law school. With only very few exceptions, when registering to take the bar exam, an applicant will need to demonstrate that they graduated from an ABA-accredited law school if they want to gain permission to take the bar exam.
California is the primary exception to this rule (although other states also have this exception!). Students don’t have to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school to take the California bar exam. However, even if you can take the bar exam in one state, graduating from a school that doesn’t have ABA accreditation will likely impact your ability to practice law in another state.
Likelihood of passing the bar exam.
Even if you are allowed to sit for the bar exam, having attended a law school that is not ABA-accredited may reduce your likelihood of actually passing the bar exam. One of the requirements to gain ABA accreditation is that 75% of bar exam takers regularly pass the bar exam within two years. Thus, the lack of ABA accreditation may be a sign that the school is not providing the education necessary to adequately prepare its students to pass the bar exam.
Assuming you’re able to sit for and pass the bar exam, a remaining hurdle may be securing a job in the legal field. Whether we like it or not, prestige and reputation of one’s law school play a significant role in landing a job. The more prestigious the law school, the more likely that student’s resume will get noticed and picked out of a pool of applicants. Law schools that are not accredited by the ABA tend to be lesser-known schools. Nonaccredited schools also tend to not carry the same reputational weight as law schools with ABA accreditation. As such, having graduated from a law school without ABA accreditation may increase the already challenging venture of getting your resume noticed and receiving a job offer.
Lastly, this difficulty of cutting through the noise and getting noticed by hiring managers and attorney recruiting officers may also result in finding positions with lower salaries, fewer career development opportunities, or only narrow niche areas of law.
Why Some People May Be Drawn To A Law School That Is Not ABA-Accredited
Nonetheless, there are reasons, and good reasons, why some may choose to attend a law school that is not ABA accredited.
Opportunity for nontraditional school.
One of the biggest benefits of non-ABA accredited law schools is the opportunity for nontraditional law programs. Many law schools without ABA accreditation hold their classes in the evening. Some offer classes fully online to be taken on students’ own time. These schools also may not require students to carry full-time credit loads and instead offer education at more of a part-time pace. Rather than strictly setting students on a 3-year graduation track, many law schools without ABA accreditation allow their students to take 4 years or even longer to complete their legal education.
For many people, the rigid, demanding, requirements of a more traditional law school schedule keep a legal education out of reach. Some students need, or just want, to be present with their kids or care for an elderly family member during the day, making night classes essential. For those who can’t afford to set aside a job or those who don’t want to take out school loans, a part-time course load may be just the right fit to balance work and school. Additionally, for those who are just balancing other interests and commitments in life, or learning at a different pace, having more time may be the missing piece of their educational puzzle.
Different acceptance requirements.
Some people may also be attracted to a law school that doesn’t have ABA accreditation because these schools tend to have different acceptance requirements. Everyone has different skills and different paths in life. Many great attorneys didn’t do well on the LSAT or may have struggled to maintain high grades in their undergraduate studies. Law schools without ABA accreditation often keep barriers to acceptance lower than ABA-accredited law schools. This opens the door for potentially great attorneys to start their legal journey, where their path might otherwise be blocked.
Strong local reputations
Lastly, while we already explained that law schools without ABA accreditation may not carry the same prestige or reputation as an ABA-accredited school, some nonaccredited schools do in fact have strong local reputations. So while a degree from a nonaccredited law school may not carry a student far geographically, it may open all the right doors for students interested and committed to investing in their local legal community.
Tips To Select A School That is A Good Fit For You
At the end of the day, deciding which law school to attend is a deeply personal decision. Only you know what is best for you and your goals. The key is to make an informed decision and making the very most of what that school has to offer. We’ll leave you with a few parting tips on choosing a school that’s right for you, whether it ABA accredited or not.
Consider where you want to build your legal practice.
Attending a law school in the state you want to practice helps you learn that state’s law and build a network before you’re even done with law school. Also, knowing the bar admission requirements for the state, or state(s) in which you want to practice will help you know whether attending a law school that doesn’t have ABA accreditation is going to be a deal breaker.
Write down your post-law school goals.
If you want to be a practicing attorney, attending an ABA-accredited law school likely better suits achieving that goal. However, if your goal is to go into policy work, business leadership, advocacy, compliance, risk management, or anything else that doesn’t require passing the bar, a law school without ABA accreditation may be a good fit. A Juris Doctor (JD) degree alone can open the door to a lot of different careers and help you develop skills and critical thinking vital to making a meaningful impact.
Explore other nontraditional law programs.
More and more ABA-accredited law schools are evolving with the changing times. Some ABA-accredited schools now offer part-time and/or evening courses. Some offer JD programs that fully or partially incorporate online learning. Other ABA-accredited law schools are updating their admission requirements. This might mean they accept the GRE in place of the LSAT. They might relax some of their admissions standards. This could benefit those who did not perform their best during their undergraduate studies but who show promise to succeed in law school. You may be surprised to find more feasible options among ABA-accredited schools than you expected!
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