Proposed ABA Change Could Compromise Quality

It is no secret that the last six years have been difficult ones for law schools, with student enrollment down significantly. Fewer students means less tuition revenue, and as a result schools have had to either find other sources of revenue or cut costs. For regulators, bar examiners, and those who care about the quality of legal education, a core concern is (or should be) whether these revenue enhancements or cost cutting measures adversely affect the quality of the education.

On the revenue side, the ABA has always been attentive to impact on quality. The ABA does not accredit or regulate non-J.D. programs, but any ABA accredited school that wants to add a non-J.D. program must complete a detailed questionnaire which is designed to demonstrate that the new degree program will not divert necessary resources from the J.D. program.

However, a recent proposed rule change to Standard 403 suggests that the ABA is less concerned about quality impacts on the cost-cutting side. Currently, the accreditation rules require that full-time faculty teach substantially all of the first-year classes and at least half of all credit hours offered by the school. A proposed rule change would eliminate any requirement concerning full-time faculty in the upper class curriculum. In other words, the entire upper-class curriculum could be taught solely by part-time adjuncts.

Nearly every law school uses practicing lawyers and judges to teach skills and specialty courses, and their presence enriches the curriculum. Indeed, for certain specialized courses, adjuncts are undoubtedly better teachers than full-time faculty. But as valuable as part-time adjuncts can be, they are no substitute for full-time faculty, for whom teaching, mentoring of students, and curriculum review and assessment are a full-time job, and require a full-time focus of attention.

Teaching core foundational subjects requires more than a practitioner’s knowledge of the area. When I moved from practicing antitrust law to teaching it, I needed to spend many, many hours preparing in order to be able to provide the appropriate conceptual framework. The problem is not that practicing lawyers lack the ability – it is that they lack the time. Full-time faculty keep up not only with their subject area but also with pedagogical innovations. For example, here at Richmond Law, over the past several years our full-time faculty members have participated in multiple workshops, presentations, and discussions about teaching, adult learners, implicit bias, feedback, and assessments. And that doesn’t include the hours that colleagues have spent in each other’s offices offering feedback and ideas. We do hold training programs for our part-time faculty, but they are much shorter and attendance is much lighter.

I don’t mean to suggest that no part-time teacher could ever adequately teach a foundational course, but I don’t think it is likely that a school could appropriately staff an entire upper-class curriculum with only part-time teachers. And unlike the rules on adding new programs, this proposed rule change has no requirement that a school demonstrates that it has systems in place to assure that an entire upper-class curriculum taught only by part-time teachers will be adequate.

Beyond their work in the classroom, full-time faculty are essential to the governance and oversight of law schools. They set standards of assessment and review the curriculum, along with making decisions about hiring new faculty, and they function as advisors to student co-curricular activities and as personal mentors to students. A school with only enough full-time faculty to teach the first-year curriculum will be very thinly staffed.

The current rule already allows schools to have half of its credit hours taught by part-time adjuncts. This gives schools a great deal of flexibility. But allowing schools to eliminate full-time faculty from the entire upper-class curriculum without any demonstration that the school has in place the necessary safeguards to assure quality is a dangerous nod to financial exigency.