If Shawn Landry could do it over again, he might not attend the
upstart Massachusetts School of Law - though he says he got a great
education at an even greater price.
He praises MSL for its professors' practical experience in court.
He loved the small night classes and individual attention. He still
owes $35,000 in loans, but that's only half what many of his friends
racked up at other Massachusetts law schools. His one problem with
MSL? It is not accredited by the American Bar Association. Without
that ABA stamp of approval, Mr. Landry cannot take the Florida bar
exam to become a practicing lawyer in the Sunshine State, where he
and his family live. So he may move back to Massachusetts - one of
only three states where new MSL graduates can take the state bar
As in decades past, ABA accreditation is the crowning achievement
of law schools. Attaining it requires close attention to such
factors as faculty-student ratios and other minutiae like the number
of seats available in the school law library. Without it, a law
school's grads can't take the bar exam in most states.
Yet, in a remarkably swift turnaround, many schools now argue that
"one-size-fits-all" ABA standards exclude innovative, low-cost law
schools like MSL and actually hurt the quality of legal education
in America. In the past four years, an increasingly noisy movement
challenging ABA accreditation standards has grown far beyond the
gadfly Massachusetts School of Law to include blue-chip institutions.
Debate has now reached the US Department of Education, and the ABA
faces possible loss of federal recognition as an accrediting body.
Much hangs on how the department and its advisory bodies receive a
key ABA report due Sept. 1. Even if the ABA retains federal
recognition, the challenge may profoundly change accrediting rules.
How the ABA got into such hot water is partly the story of a
David-and-Goliath encounter. It is also the story of an organization
that managed to alienate a key constituency - the deans of many ABA-
accredited law schools.
There are 182 ABA-accredited law schools and more than 40 other
law schools - including MSL - that are not ABA-accredited. Only
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont permit MSL grads to take the
bar exam immediately upon graduation. Graduates of ABA accredited
schools may take a bar exam in any state.
That's not fair, says MSL Dean Lawrence Velvel. ABA rules, geared
to big schools, have helped boost the average cost of a legal
education to $60,000, he and others say.
Of course, Mr. Velvel's 10-year-old school has already flouted
many of the ABA's most cherished rules to keep tuition at just
$10,800 a year. Its 60,000-volume library is less than half the ABA-
prescribed size - though MSL argues everything students need is
online. The school has no campus - just a modern (if Spartan) office
building in Andover, Mass. The ABA cited it for an "inadequate
physical plant," Velvel says. Massachusetts School of Law also
violates another rule by using practicing lawyers as part-time
professors to teach law from a "clinical" rather than a theoretical
basis. Its faculty does a lot of administrative work, something else
the ABA cited in rejecting the school in 1993.
Breaking such archaic rules is the only way to make law school
affordable to low-income students, Velvel says. "We'd like to be
judged by the quality and ability of the lawyers we educate." he
MSL's results, he says, speak for themselves. So far, 89 percent
of all MSL graduates have passed the Massachusetts bar exam. …