Budget Law Schools Buck Status Quo Both Low-Budget and Traditional Law Schools Are Questioning the American Bar Association's Accredidation Standards: Are They Good-Education Guarantees or Straightjacket Rules?

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THE Massachusetts School of Law makes a point of being bare bones. Located in a three-story brick office built as part of an industrial park that failed, its classrooms and library are stark and modern.

A pile of broken chairs crowd one corner of the half-story library. A room full of computers connecting students with on-line legal reference books on-line replaces the floors of hard-bound volumes of more traditional schools.

All-in-all, MSL doesn't look revolutionary. But that's exactly what it is - a school that is rocking the US legal education establishment to its ivy-clad foundation.

Seventeen months ago, MSL dean Lawrence Velvel sued the powerful American Bar Association for antitrust violations after it denied his school's accreditation. He maintains that a "cartel" of legal insiders requires useless standards that drive law-school prices sky high and quash educational innovation.

If nothing else, his charges have sparked a spate of soul-searching in the US legal community.

"We're the most serious imaginable threat to {the ABA}," Velvel says. "People will start going to good, cheap schools and the whole system of schools will face possible collapse if schools like ours can get a foothold in education."

The ABA functions as a monopoly because in 42 states in the US, a law student must have graduated from an ABA-accredited school in order to take the bar exam. The ABA is quick to point out that a Department of Education investigation of their accreditation practices - conducted in December 1994 - went largely nowhere and that the ABA has filed a motion to dismiss the antitrust case. Inevitable change

But even James Halverson, member of the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, admits change in the ABA accreditation process is inevitable. Indeed, changes have already begun.

This month at its biannual meeting, the ABA removed two accreditation standards, including one regulating professor salary level (considered the most grievous antitrust violation); there was also talk about significant changes in the library standards.

A Justice Department investigation - which grew out of MSL's antitrust suit and is expected to recommend substantive reforms - is continuing. And the Department of Education has asked for two interim reports on how the ABA would comply with its suggestions. If the association has not complied by 1997, when ABA accrediting will be up for renewal, the Department of Education could deny accreditation privileges to them.

Perhaps most telling of the legal community's mini-revolution is the criticism launched by the ABA's own member law schools.

"The ABA needs to clean up its act, and stop micromanaging," says Colin Diver, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. …