There are 200 law schools currently accredited by the American Bar Association, the Chicago-based national professional organization of the legal field. Any graduate of one of these law schools who has met the eligibility requirements may sit for the bar examination in any state. When people talk about law school, they generally mean these ABA-accredited schools.
To be accredited, law schools must demonstrate compliance with the ABA’s standards of a “sound legal education,” covering everything from curriculum and faculty to facilities and services. Last year, the ABA added a new requirement that 75% of graduates who sit for the bar exam pass it within two years.
While many law schools have offered degrees since well before the ABA became the federally recognized accreditor of U.S. law schools in 1952, others have come and gone. Over the last few years, several law schools have ceased operations, lost their accreditation or been placed on provisional status.
Some experts have predicted a wave of law school closures in coming decades, arguing that many law schools are more financially precarious than their stately buildings and sleek websites suggest. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has sapped law school budgets and led to pay cuts and hiring freezes across many campuses. The vast majority of law schools will withstand the crisis, with tuitions higher than ever and early statistics showing an increase in law school applicants this year.
However, there are also more than 30 law schools in the U.S. and a few more international law schools overseas that also provide a legal education without ABA accreditation. Most are based in California, where graduates of nonaccredited law schools can take the bar exam and qualify as lawyers. A few other states, such as Alabama, also permit graduates of certain unaccredited law schools to take the bar if they have met specific educational requirements.
Why Attend an Unaccredited Law School?
While unaccredited law schools will not take just any warm body that walks in the door, their admissions processes tend to be much less competitive than ABA-approved schools. Applicants who wish to put the LSAT behind them or avoid taking the test at all may appreciate the chance to study law without jumping through hoops. Some unaccredited schools have a religious bent or unconventional pedagogy that may appeal to like -minded applicants.
[Read: What Is a J.D. Degree?]
Unaccredited law schools also tend to be cheaper and more convenient than accredited schools. Many unaccredited law schools offer flexible, part-time and online options that appeal to older applicants working full time. Indeed, ethnic disparities in wealth and income may explain why Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented among students of unaccredited law schools but underrepresented among accredited schools.
Pitfalls Down the Road
Even if graduates of unaccredited law schools save money in the short term, their postgraduate job prospects may suffer. Their overall rates of bar passage and postgraduate employment are significantly lower than for their peers from low-ranked but accredited law schools. Only 50.1% of test takers passed the July 2019 bar exam in California, including only 14.4% of graduates of unaccredited California law schools.
Furthermore, graduates of unaccredited law schools may not sit for the bar in most states or practice out of state. While California is a vast state with an outsize legal market, its bar exam is notoriously hard with a passage rate lower than any other state. Its major legal markets are also highly competitive, attracting lawyers nationwide. Those limitations often force graduates from unaccredited law schools to find jobs through personal connections or start their own practices in overlooked markets.
Weighing the Evidence
To be sure, many graduates of unaccredited law schools who pass the bar exam succeed in the legal field. And once in practice, their legal education may fade from relevance. Many states even allow lawyers who passed the California bar and have practiced for a certain number of years — typically three to 10, depending on the state — to take their bar exam regardless of their education.
However, there are strong reasons to be wary that unaccredited law schools offer enough benefits to justify the time and tuition they take. The fact that many such schools are for-profit, along with some accredited ones, is reason enough for concern. Rather than attend an unaccredited law school, most applicants would be better off gaining entry to an ABA-approved school by raising their LSAT score or improving their application profile in other ways.
As a final note, California is one of four states — along with Virginia, Vermont and Washington — that allow individuals to skip law school altogether and qualify for the bar exam after a traditional legal apprenticeship called “reading the law.” If you can find a lawyer looking for an apprentice, you may save on tuition and follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln.
More from U.S. News
Pros, Cons of Attending an Unaccredited Law School originally appeared on usnews.com