Getting the ABA Out of the Law School Accreditation Business:

Readers of this blog know that there is an ongoing controversy over the American Bar Association accreditation standards for law schools, and co-blogger David Bernstein, among others, have pointed out numerous flaws in the ABA's approach.

To my mind, the problem goes beyond the shortcomings of specific ABA standards. The real mistake is allowing an organization with a blatant conflict of interest to take over the accreditation role in the first place. As an interest group representing lawyers, the ABA has an obvious stake in limiting entry into the profession so as to decrease the competition faced by its members. One way of doing so is by restricting the number of accredited law schools, at least in the vast majority of states that require all or most aspiring lawyers to attend an ABA-accredited school in order to take the bar exam. We would not allow an organization run by Chrysler, GM, and Ford to set regulatory standards determining who has the right to sell cars in the United States. Requiring ABA accreditation for law schools is the exact equivalent in our industry.

Nor is the point purely theoretical. As soon-to-be guest blogger Andrew Morriss explains in this paper (pp. 4-9), ABA accreditation of law schools emerged in the early twentieth century as a way of eliminating competition from independent law schools and apprenticeship systems. Many if not most ABA accreditation requirements since that time have similar causes.

If viewed as mechanisms for maintaining a cartel system rather than as efforts to advance the public interest, the ABA's most controversial accreditation policies suddenly start to make sense. For example, the ABA's support for methods of affirmative action that admit students most of whom are likely to either drop out of law school or fail the bar obviously serves the economic interests of already practicing lawyers. After all, had those same admissions slots gone to people who are likely to graduate and pass the bar, there would be more competition in the profession. Like David Bernstein, I am not categorically opposed to all forms of affirmative action. But it is striking that the ABA has chosen the form most likely to advance the interests of its members and least likely to actually help minority students (not to mention minority consumers of legal services).

Similarly, the requirement that schools have a variety of expensive, but redundant library resources and other programs that most students do not need (discussed in Prof. Morriss' article linked above) greatly increases the cost of establishing a new law school and thereby further reduces competition.

To be completely clear, I am NOT arguing that the ABA should be prevented from certifying schools as meeting what it considers to be appropriate standards. I am merely suggesting that ABA accreditation should not be required by law as a prerequisite for allowing a school's graduates to take the bar. If ABA accreditation really is a sign of school quality, then applicants can take that into account in making their decisions on what school to attend, just as they currently consider US News rankings and other data. If some form of legally mandated accreditation is needed (and I highly doubt that it is), the system should be run by an independent agency insulated as much as possible from control by the ABA and other interest groups representing practicing lawyers. There should be similar insulation, by the way, from influence by established law schools, since we too have an obvious self-interest in limiting competition by preventing new entry into the legal education market.

The ABA's own survey data show that the public has far less confidence in lawyers than members of most other professions. Personally, I do not believe that lawyers are, on average, less trustworthy than other professionals (then again, I'm a lawyer!). But we certainly are NOT trustworthy enough to be allowed to run a government-supported cartel under which we can prevent would-be competitors from joining the industry.

Those state governments that require ABA accreditation of law schools have in effect appointed a committee of foxes to control access to their chicken coops. We should not be surprised if the foxes have taken the opportunity to gobble up some of the chickens. The really surprising thing is that so many people seem to accept the foxes' self-serving rhetoric that they are doing it for the benefit of chicken farmers.

UPDATE: I am not saying that ABA officials are consciously lying when they claim that their accreditation standards are meant to serve the public interest. Many probably believe their own rhetoric. However, this provides little comfort, since people have a great capacity to believe that whatever benefits them is also good for the general public. Every interest group has its version of "What's good for GM is good for America," and the ABA is no exception.