Many people talk about Access to Justice (A2J), the big legal movement of the 21st century. But the biggest hurdle to A2J is the delivery of the legal education itself. The organization who controls what constitutes a valid education to gain a license to practice law is the American Bar Association (ABA). They determine accreditation. And as we all know, in order to sit for the bar exam you have to have graduated from an ABA-accredited law school (with the exception of California, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming).
Yes, it’s true. The ABA is the greatest hurdle to providing access to justice for the millions in this country who need affordable legal services. Let me tell you why.
Many of you have a knee-jerk reaction when you hear that another law school is opening and seeking accreditation. ‘No more lawyers! We can’t employ the lawyers we have. There’s a glut of unemployed lawyers. Pull up the drawbridge. No more lawyers crossing the moat. The castle is full.’ Well, that is precisely the wrong response.
What we have is basically a cartel of grossly over-priced law schools forcing the majority of those who want to practice law into mortgaging their futures. These students graduate not only poorly trained for today’s realities, but without jobs. Ironically, one could even survive this and move on were it not for the crippling debt forcing them to take any job just to pay back loans. No careers in the law. No prospects to get a high enough paying job to pay back these notes. They really can’t move on because they are emotionally and financially bankrupted. They are also ill-equipped to innovate, come up with new ways to service clients in a cost-effective manner while still being able to put food on the table because of the heavy toll they have had to pay for the privilege of being called ‘lawyer’. I blame the ABA.
We have more than 200 ABA-accredited law schools operating within a broken educational model. When something is broken those who are in the middle of the chaos are ill-equipped to fix it. That’s why we need more law schools, schools that operate outside the traditional ABA-approved model that will educate lawyers as they should be educated and at a price they can afford. And not just a price they can afford, but at a price that allows the new law grad to walk away from the profession if the economy takes a downturn.
Sacrilege? I think not.
There is only one wholly online law school (unaccredited) in California that I believe has a model that actually works and would satisfy the ABA if they would just allow themselves to enter an alternate universe free from the law school education cartel. It also begs the question, why isn’t this school allowed to be accredited in California or elsewhere? St. Francis Law School is a model which should be replicated.
The annual tuition for St. Francis School of Law is $8,000. Tuition does not include the cost of a computer, Internet access, or textbooks. The best effort estimate of the costs of books and study materials is $1,000 to $1,200 per year. The best estimate cost of textbooks for four years of study is $4,000 to $4,800.
Yes, you read this right! And this school gets high marks all around. They are also a school catering to primarily very high-caliber applicants who are already in the work force and can handle learning online. They are also the only not-for-profit wholly online law school in the country. They don’t accept 1200 students a year and churn and burn for profit. Classes are generally around 15 students with two faculty members and ‘live interactive’ classrooms from the comfort of your computer. You have writing assignments, independent study, group projects and exams. They are transparent about what one can expect upon graduation. Many of their students are employed in their careers and looking to enhance their professional resume with a legal degree and practical skills. Their students are highly motivated and one could argue, more mature. But the big takeaway is if this is a model that is working, why shouldn’t there be more like this tweaked for the typical law student and accredited?
Wholly online J.D. programs are not accredited by the American Bar Association, and graduates of the programs are eligible only to take the California Bar Exam, given that it’s the only state in which online law schools can officially register (though some states have been known to make exceptions on an individual basis). In all, there are 12 unaccredited distance or correspondence law schools registered in California, including Concord Law School of Kaplan University, California School of Law, and the Abraham Lincoln University School of Law.
It should be noted the ABA pretty much shocked the legal community in 2014 when it approved the first hybrid law program at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. The ABA’s approval of the new half-online, half-onsite program could be viewed as the first step toward the approval of a fully online law degree. But it still misses the point: Tuition is still $20,000 per year! You can’t price the program at a discount from traditional education. It must operate under a completely new model and be built and priced from the ground up.
Access to Justice requires that those who wish to get a good legal education in a more innovative and cost-effective way should not be prevented from doing so because of the ABA’s outdated requirements keeping innovative law schools at bay. Potential students should not be prevented from becoming lawyers because they are mandated to take on life-altering debt from a traditional law school. When you have existing or traditional law schools creating hybrids, it is an outgrowth of their current profit model and law school structure. This won’t work, at least not in any meaningful way for the majority of potential law students because it doesn’t address the ridiculous tuition which is still charged. The ABA needs to recognize that current tuition is a huge deterrent to success. And this cost is a huge obstacle when addressing A2J. Newer, wholly online law schools following the model of St. Francis Law School need to get full accreditation and fast.
Were there a physical shortage of living, breathing lawyers, the ABA would be rethinking their approach, I would hope. But this misconception, that there are too many lawyers, has them protecting the current cartel of law schools. It’s a misguided approach for law students, today’s clients and the profession.
Let’s stop screaming there are too many law schools. Let’s start replicating St. Francis Law School’s model, get them accredited and forever change the legal education landscape.