One of the consequences of working at a new school that had been seeking first-time ABA approval for almost twenty years is that you become more familiar with the details of the ABA accreditation standards than you might personally prefer. I have materially participated in drafting four ABA self-studies — two unsuccessful efforts submitted by Southern New England; a third attempt started by SNESL, but aborted as the merger into U.Mass. occurred; and the most recent successful effort as the U.Mass. Law School. Most times, even if you disagree with a requirement, you can nevertheless understand why the ABA requires it. Sometimes, however, this is not true. Consider Standard 502 entitled “Educational Requirements”:
(a) A law school shall require for admission to its J.D. degree program a bachelor’s degree ... from an institution that is accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Department of Education.
(b) In an extraordinary case, a law school may admit to its J.D. degree program an applicant who does not possess the educational requirements of subsection (a) if the applicant’s experience, ability, and other characteristics clearly show an aptitude for the study of law. ...
The basic purpose of the rule is understandable. The U.S. law degree is a graduate program, so it makes sense to require typical applicants to law school to establish that they have completed an undergraduate education. The accrediting agency referenced in the rule are the regional agencies (NEASC for us). Gaining regional accreditation, though not pro forma, is not extraordinarily difficult either as long as the institution is not just a diploma mill (I’ve had the “privilege” of drafting multiple NEASC self-studies, also).
The problem with the rule is its U.S.-centric basis. There are many undergraduate institutions world-wide that provide excellent undergraduate educations. Does the ABA mean to make admission to a U.S. law school more difficult for a graduate of the University of Cambridge or Oxford just because they are located in the U.K. or of McGill University just because it is located in Canada? None of these institutions are accredited as far as the U.S. Department of Education is concerned. Under 502, exceptions can only be granted in “extraordinary case[s].” Personally, I suspect that a vast majority of foreign-educated applicants across the country are justifiably deemed qualified and are admitted despite their foreign degree. All of our foreign-educated applicants aren’t only above average, they are extraordinary.
While the rule practically mandates that all candidates have a U.S. undergraduate degree, the admissions requirements in Chapter 5 of the ABA Standards are silent on a candidate’s language abilities. For any law school, it is a major problem when a student is not fluent in the language of instruction. Why is it, then, that the ABA has no requirements that a student demonstrate an ability in the language of instruction?