Volume 35

Building an Accessible, Affordable, and High-Quality Legal Education: Developing Objective Criteria to Evaluate the Effectiveness of Regulatory Interventions 

by Madeline O'Brien

The rule of law is foundational in American society, its politics, and its economy. In the face of 21st century challenges, including socioeconomic inequality, deepening political divisions, and the long-term impacts of a global pandemic and climate change, lawyers are needed to protect the interests of different groups, resolve conflicts, and examine changes to the law. Pursuing a legal career requires passing a state bar exam for licensure as a professional attorney following three years of legal education (law school) and completion of a bachelor’s degree. Most legal education is delivered by 199 institutions accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) to provide instruction sufficient for licensing in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. While there are U.S. law schools that operate without ABA accreditation, some states do not allow graduates of non-ABA accredited universities to take the bar exam.

The ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is authorized by the Department of Education to conduct accreditation for law school programs. The ABA maintains strict accreditation standards, including requirements for admission, minimum credit hours, full-time faculty-to-student ratios, and standards for on-campus facilities. Accredited institutions must also regularly submit data and questionnaires in the “form, manner, and time frame specified” by the section’s Council.

Ideally, every reasonably qualified student would be able to obtain a legal education sufficient for pursuing the career of their choice without taking on a burdensome debt load. In this perfect world, more students would have access to quality legal education at a reasonable cost, freeing future attorneys to take on a wider array of career challenges without concerns about repaying education debt.

Inefficiencies in the market for legal education result in high costs, insufficient quality standards, and barriers to access. This Note will 1) examine how the current legal education system fails to provide accessible, quality legal education at a reasonable price; 2) diagnose key deficiencies in the market; 3) offer criteria for analyzing policy choices; and 4) propose regulatory solutions to move closer to a world in which every reasonably qualifed student can become a lawyer free of onerous debt.


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