Weigh the Benefits, Disadvantages of Attending a Non-ABA Law School

Menachem Wecker

The American Bar Association, a Chicago-based professional organization that has accredited law schools since 1952, approves of 202 institutions in the United States--three of them provisionally. Although all states allow graduates with a J.D. from an ABA-approved law school to sit for the bar examination--and in some states, it's a prerequisite to applying for the test--some states allow students who attended non-ABA schools to take the bar, according to the ABA website.

It's easy to understand, then, why many lawyers encourage students to maximize their professional flexibility by attending schools that are approved by the ABA. "Going to a non-ABA accredited law program greatly reduces the options law students will have in their legal career," says Josh King, the general counsel and vice president of business development at Avvo, an online legal forum and directory.

For students who know they want to work in a state that has a more open policy with respect to law school accreditation and bar admission, it's fine to go to a non-ABA school, adds King, who holds a J.D. from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law.

"But for anyone who isn't particularly sure what they want to do with their legal training--or where they want to practice--going to such a school is a very poor decision," he says. "A far better choice under such circumstances is to work harder at getting into an accredited program, or pursue a different career."

Other lawyers, such as Monrae English, a partner at Wild, Carter & Tipton in Fresno, Calif., acknowledge that under certain circumstances, students may benefit from studying at a non-ABA school. Many of English's associates went to the San Joaquin College of Law, a local school that she says has been "trying for decades" to gain ABA accreditation.

[Learn why the ABA won't accredit foreign law schools.]

A school like San Joaquin can be convenient for students who are married or have children and are already established in the Fresno area; it is also less expensive than an ABA school and has good local name recognition and a strong local alumni support system, English says.

Despite San Joaquin's local reputation, English chose to attend the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, rather than a non-ABA-accredited school. She did so even though California allows graduates with J.D.'s from non ABA-schools to sit for the bar.

Law schools without ABA approval tend to have "dismal and skewed bar passage rates," she says, and they limit graduates' options. Recent graduates aren't likely to receive a first offer outside of the area where the school is based, she says. "In California, there is definitely a hierarchy in terms of schools, and a non-ABA school is the bottom of the barrel."

[Read why non-ABA accredited online law programs face a hung jury.]

When they apply for legal jobs, graduates of non-ABA schools may find themselves being called upon to defend their alma maters' admissions standards, according to English. Law schools seeking ABA accreditation generally need to raise money to comply with the accreditation panel's recommendations, which leads many to admit students "who, in all actuality, should never be in law school to begin with." Those students, in turn, don't pass the bar but still amass debt.

"With the lure of convenience, the lower debt ratio, and the potential of being a successful lawyer, [a] non-ABA school plucks out some pretty vulnerable and unqualified students to fund their ABA ambitions," English says. "Very sad to say that I know dozens of graduates who have never been able to pass the bar or find that their careers are limited to working in low-level government legal jobs."

[See why law schools say students need to job hunt more actively.]

There are, however, what English refers to as "incredible success stories," such as Fresno District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, who is a San Joaquin graduate, and other very successful lawyers--including a partner at her firm--who attended San Joaquin.

Jeffrey Bramer, an attorney in Birmingham, Ala., has similarly run a successful practice after graduating from a non-ABA school, the Birmingham School of Law. "I have worked hard as a solo for 23 years, and not a single client has asked where I went to law school," he says.

Bramer worked full time as a law student, which ABA-approved schools don't allow during students' first year. "That allows rich kids to go to law school or poor students who had someone else pay their way," he says. "I know plenty of people who went to [an] ABA approved school and are waiting tables with debt they may never be able to repay. I graduated with zero debt."

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