January 12, 2010
Accrediting Law Schools: Inputs, Outputs, and Securities Regulation
Posted by Erik Gerding

While most professors were busy giving and listening to talks at AALS, our deans were having apparently unpleasant conversations with the ABA on proposed changes to the accreditation process. The Chronicle of Higher Education report is here. The 20 second summary: the ABA wants to change accreditation standards to measure outputs (how well students are learning) instead of in-puts (for example, how many books are in the library).

Sounds sensible, right? The deans, however, are reportedly balking because of the potential costs of switching standards in a tough economy and doubt as to whether the ABA’s metrics for “output” will be sensible.  This led to a politically devastating headline for the Chronicle story: "Law Schools Resist Proposal to Assess Them Based on What Students Learn."

The decanal concerns might be valid, but in the medium run, law schools ought to join this effort to judge schools based on how well we are performing in our most basic mission. One potential unstated concern: the current accreditation process has subtle benefits for law schools. Law schools can use accreditation reports to bargain with university central administration. “We need more of X, otherwise our accreditation is in doubt. See -- here is the ABA letter.”

There is a larger question of what the ABA’s role ought to be. It might be time to change that role from a gatekeeper model of accreditation towards improving and auditing disclosure to prospective students and the bar. In other words, other than flunking schools with serious deficiencies, the ABA should focus on making sure that law school disclosure to the outside world is accurate and free of gimmicks. To analogize to securities regulation, let’s move from merit regulation to a more purely disclosure regime. Instead of decrying U.S. News rankings, deans and law faculties should take a page from the Brian Leiter book, and develop more useful metrics of law school quality.

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