La Verne’s Lessons

[UPDATE: The National Law Journal reports that UC-Irvine received provisional accreditation while Elon University and Charlotte School of Law both received full accreditation from the ABA]

The news is in, and as predicted, the University of La Verne lost its provisional ABA accreditation. La Verne’s administrators argue that it was improving, for its first-time bar passage rates went from 34% in July 2009 to 53% in 2010. This is a substantial improvement, though La Verne couldn’t’ve been responsible for it since all these students graduated at the same time in May 2009. Also, the 53% refers to the 7 out of 12 first-time takers in February 2010 while more recently in July 2010, 46.7% (35/75 first-time takers) passed.The ABA’s accreditation standards are remarkably clear on the topic, and you can see its extensive rules in Interpretation 301-6 and Appendix 3. Since I don’t have data on the bar fates of all of La Verne’s graduates, I’m going to assume the ABA followed its standards, yet even if we ignored them and took La Verne’s claims at face value, this still isn’t a glass half-full story of the ABA following its own rules and holding a law school accountable for its poor performance. Rather, it’s a glass half-empty story of the indie California legal education system’s tolerance for widespread bar exam failure.

Consider the results table for the July 2010 CA Bar exam:

California’s own law schools do far worse than the ABA ones, and La Verne was a California law school; it was founded in the early 1970s and sought ABA status only in the last decade. It just kept behaving like a California school. Look at La Verne’s LSAC data. We can see its incoming students didn’t have the best LSAT scores, which resembled those of California’s least-regarded ABA law schools, but they did improve over time:

Incoming Class 75% LSAT Median LSAT 25% LSAT
2005-2006 150 148 147
2006-2007 154 150 149
2007-2008 153 151 149
2008-2009 155 151 149

(I exclude GPA data because they’re a wash: in the age of grade inflation, we have no idea what La Verne’s students’ grades meant, especially when majors and institutions’ reputations differ so widely.)

You can criticize the LSAT for all sins under the sun: inaccurately prophesying law students’ potential (perhaps poor scorers have good business acumen or leadership skills), inaccurately assessing first-year performance (law school classes have narrow LSAT ranges and grade on curves), etc., but it’s safe to say that if you can sit for five hours and fill a few hundred bubbles on a Scantron sheet correctly, you’ll probably be able to do the same on the MBE portion of a bar exam. The eyeball correlation between California’s ABA law schools’ US News rankings and their bar passage rates bear this out, for US News leans heavily on LSAT scores to evaluate law schools (though admittedly bar passage rates factor in too so there is some feedback). Six of California’s ABA law schools had below average bar passage rates (<68.3%) in July 2010 for first-time takers, and all but San Diego report LSAT scores similar to La Verne’s.

Law School ’07-’08 75% LSAT ’07-’08 Median LSAT ’07-’08 25% LSAT ’07-’08 Enrollment ’05-’06 Enrollment
Golden Gate 155 153 151 654 759
Southwestern 157 155 153 1,011 964
Thomas Jefferson 152 149 147 792 770
Whittier 155 N/A 151 506 673
La Verne 153 151 149 354 265
Total 3,317 3,431

Ultimately, most of this was La Verne’s fault. Upon reaching provisional ABA status, La Verne’s enrollment went from 265 in 2005-2006 to 392 in 2008-2009, nearly 50% increase. Meanwhile, tuition for full-time students went from $30,810 to $36,320 (+17.9%). Neither of these moves was warranted: required bar passage rates are based on percentages not a headcount, and tuition inflation isn’t necessary because US News doesn’t rank provisionally accredited law schools.

So what went wrong for La Verne? The answer is obvious: The university expanded too quickly and took in too many students who didn’t have a good chance of passing the bar. At best, it would’ve achieved rates such as Golden Gate’s, Southwestern’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, and Whittier’s. The lessons to take from this are:

  1. If California’s deregulated system is to offer an alternative to the ABA’s selective one, it has to show better results or change the metrics. That may mean moving from a generalized bar exam to multiple exams for specialized practice areas, or it may mean requiring universities to place an equity investment in their students to prevent enrolling applicants who have a low likelihood of obtaining a license, or it could even mean shifting even more heavily to an apprenticeship model than it already does. However, masquerading as ABA-lite with poorer performance on existing metrics is embarrassingly wasteful.
  2. La Verne’s experience is a fluke that does not signify the end of ABA law schools as we know it. There may be too few people with bar exam aptitudes living in or willing to move to Ontario, CA, or it was competing in the wrong market, that is, against TJSL, Whittier, etc. Nonetheless, so long as proposed law schools entice small numbers of quality students over opening their doors to anyone who can pay increasing tuition, they’ll make the ABA’s cut. Expand after full accreditation, not before. Therefore, since UC-Irvine’s inaugural class has a median LSAT of 167, expect its students to pass the CA bar and for the school to receive ABA accreditation without worry. Unlike La Verne, Irvine’s strategy of siphoning off standardized test-savvy applicants from the California pool has a better chance of success than competing with the glutted 153 LSAT market. Although, we’ll see whether Irvine’s more recent classes that aren’t getting free rides are similar caliber. Whether any of them will have jobs on the other hand…
  3. And now the rub: if LSAT performance correlates highly with bar exam performance, then, pray, what value does law school really add? Wasn’t the original point of law schools to train students to pass the bar? The term “law school” suggests that’s the case. Either the people who go to the best law schools could’ve just self-studied their way into passing the bar, or it doesn’t measure the value-added that law schools provide in which case we’d need a better exam. Regardless, if we’re going to keep our top-heavy legal education system as it is, rather than accredit law schools based on bar exams beyond their power and after occupying three years of their students’ lives, the ABA could just save everyone the trouble and require a minimum LSAT score for admission. Instead, the ABA is taking the opposite steps by allowing law schools to admit applicants who don’t take the LSAT.

La Verne, of course, plans to seek expedited reapproval for provisional accreditation, so this is not the last we will hear of the Inland Empire’s lone law school.

One comment

  1. Good analysis. The ABA links you provided, particularly 301-6(A)(2), give a safe harbor to schools that keep their passage rate with 15% of the state average for three of five years. Looks like the magic number is 60%. The interesting thing is this allows large toilets like Southwestern to drag down the average, enabling other toilets to become accredited. Conversely, if the ABA ever yanks accreditation for <60%, the average will rise and imperil the remaining toilets.

    I think the system works well. At the end of the day, the State of California is giving everyone a fair chance to sit for the bar while weeding out the weakest candidates. The main losers here are current and former students, who can no longer sit for the bar outside CA.

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