Opening the Door (Slightly) for Grads of Unaccredited Law Schools

by Eric Cooperstein on August 24, 2010

The Minnesota Supreme Court appears ready to open the bar admissions door just a little wider – at least enough for some graduates of unaccredited law schools, modifying the recommendations of a year-long study and report (9 MB) by the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners (MBLE).

Under the present rules, there are essentially two ways to get admitted to the bar in Minnesota: by taking and passing the bar exam or by practicing law in another jurisdiction for five of the past seven years (different rules may apply to in-house counsel). But these routes to admission are only open to graduates of ABA-accredited law schools. If you went to one of a handful of unaccredited law schools in the United States (mostly in California) or graduated from a law school in a foreign country, you cannot be admitted to the Minnesota bar unless you go to law school again at an ABA-accredited school. In fact, I know several foreign lawyers who had to do just that. Minnesota is in the minority of jurisdictions that adhere to this strict rule.

In April 2009, several Minnesota residents who had been licensed to practice law in other jurisdictions filed a petition with the Minnesota Supreme Court to amend the bar admission rules to allow them to sit for the Minnesota bar exam despite having not graduated from an ABA-approved law school. The Court, in turn, asked the MBLE to study the issue and report back to the court.

MBLE’s lengthy and quite thorough report analyzes the difficult issues surrounding how a state should determine whether individuals are competent to practice law. The ABA’s accreditation arm sets and enforces rigorous standards for law schools, such as the types of courses offered, the size of classes, availability of clinical courses, well-stocked libraries, etc. Of course, there is no empirical evidence that links each of those standards to success in practice.

Similarly, we rely on the bar exam as a measure of prospective lawyers’ competence to practice but there are no studies that reveal whether lawyers who failed the bar exam one or more times before passing are any less successful than lawyers who passed the first time. And we do not have any way of knowing whether lawyers who failed the exam and gave up might still have been successful lawyers.

The MBLE evaluated these hard questions and recommended no change in the rules regarding who is eligible to sit for the bar exam. MBLE did suggest, however, that the Court should consider admitting attorneys from other jurisdictions based on a “substantial” number of years of practice, without regard to the accreditation status of their law school. Call it the “uber waive-in rule?”

The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, appears poised to take a hybrid approach. In an order the Court issued August 13, 2010, the Court asked the MBLE to draft and file a proposed rule amendment that would “permit a licensed attorney who has successfully practiced law in another United States jurisdiction for a specified number of years to sit for the Minnesotabar examination and, if successful and otherwise qualified, be admitted to the practice of law in Minnesota notwithstanding the fact that the attorney had not graduated from an ABA approved law school.” This is very close to the suggestion submitted to MBLE by the MSBA Rules of Professional Conduct committee.

The proposed rule amendment must be filed by September 30, 2010, and will be followed by a notice and comment period. I wonder whether the ABA accreditation committee will share its thoughts.

UPDATE: In June 2011, the Minnesota Supreme Court adopted amendments to the admissions rules in Minnesota  that allow graduates of unaccredited law schools who have been admitted in another U.S. jurisdiction and practiced law for 5 of the last 7 years to sit for the Minnesota bar examination.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

paul floyd August 24, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Just wondering how many non ABA approved law schools there are in this country? And whether the number will likely grow if similar rules are adopted in other states. Also, other than California how many other states license an attorney who graduated from an Non-ABA approved school?
If I understand correctly, one could pass the bar in California and then after a set number of years of practice, sit for the MN state bar exam (to be admitted to practice law in MN) and if the individual passes the bar (and meets the other qualifications), then he or she would be licensed to practice law in MN. Seems okay to me….. what the harm. He or she must be licensed in another state and then pass the MN state bar exam. Not too much different from what we need to do to be licensed to practice law in California… or am I missing something here?

Eric Cooperstein September 4, 2010 at 10:54 pm

There are about 30 – 35 unaccredited law schools in the US, most of which are in California, which also has its own system where enrollees at unaccredited law schools take the “baby bar” after their first year – I think they must pass to be allowed to sit for the full bar exam after law school.

The risk with unaccredited schools is that they can have very minimal criteria for entrance. For example, one school in California does not require a four-year undergraduate degree. There’s a risk that people could pass the exams in California, practice marginally, and then come to MN and use their test-taking skills to become admitted here. But at the same time, allowing students of unaccredited schools more options may lead to legitimate alternatives to ABA-accredited schools that provide a good education.

I think if we spent more time and resources studying what makes lawyers successful, we would have a better idea of the impact of ABA accreditation.

Haydn Primrose April 11, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Frankly, for what its worth, I feel that ABA accreditation is a waste of energy, time and money. The ONLY reason that the ABA is fighting unaccredited law schools gaining recognition is because they own the monopoly rights to the law profession, why would they want to get rid of that?

Secondly, not every unaccredited law school has to take the baby bar. Only those that are via distance. If you take classes in person, on site, at a unaccredited law school you need only take the bar exam.

Third, you must practice law for 3 out of 5 years or in some states 5 out of 7. However, that does NOT mean you need practice in California. I know of people who went to an unaccredited law school in California, sat for the California bar, passed it and began practicing law in Colorado at the federal level. Only if you want to practice state law do you need to be licensed in that state. If you want to practice federal law, for example, immigration law, you need only be licensed in SOME state, any state.

Now there are some federal courts that require you to be a member of the bar in the state that the federal court is in, but many do not. So you can practice law in a state that you are not licensed in as long as it is federal.

Lastly, ABA is a joke because, I am sorry here, but if you will allow schools like Western State University to be ABA accredited (and they are) with bar passage rates of 26.4% in 2009, or how about Southern University (ABA accredited) with a bar passage rate of 37.8% in 2008, or Whittier (ABA accredited) with a rate of 39.3% that same year. In 2008, Thomas Jefferson and Golden Gate (both ABA accredited) failed to have a passage rate of even 45%. Heck, 24 law schools had 1/3 of their graduates fail the bar exam that year. 2007 we have to go through 30 law schools before we get to a 2/3 passage rate. In 2006 Golden Gate and Whitter both failed to have a passage rate that even hit the 30% mark. More than 7 out of 10 Whittier and Golden Gate graduates failed the bar exam yet they are ABA accredited. You cannot possibly tell me that ABA accreditation helps to ensure bar passage rates or competent attorneys.

All in all, the way I see it, if you can pass the bar exam you can practice law. Pretty simple. Let the market take care of the good and bad attorneys. If you are a bad attorney the free market will ensure you get no business and if you are a good one, word of mouth will get around and you will have clients.

I think its common sense but I know plenty who will disagree.

Eric Cooperstein April 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm

@Haydn Thanks for commenting. Different states have different rules but my understanding is that at least in California, if you go to any unaccredited law school, you have to sit for the baby bar after your first year.

It’s true you could be admitted to the bar in one state and then open an exclusively-Federal practice in another state but that is more challenging than it sounds. Only a few areas of practice are completely devoid of state law, like IP. Immigration is a possibility but depending on the type of immigration practice, the clients may also have parallel criminal proceedings that they need advice about. Similar for tax – it might be possible to do only a federal tax practice but state law questions often arise as well. There is also very little law on what fits within the federal law exception. So it’s an area to approach cautiously.

Jean Val Jean November 16, 2012 at 10:49 am

Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan is an ABA school, but they also will allow someone with an AA degree to apply and if they meet the admissions index they are offered admission. The LSAT score is used to calculate the admissions index but there is no minimum score to get in, but the higher the LSAT score the applicant has will be used to calculate a possible tuition reduction. This school now has a branch in Tampa, FL and unless a person is set on attending an expensive school and plans to make millions, does it really matter where you go to law school if you pass the bar exam? I’ve seen some very stupid lawyers in my days as a court bailiff and once a judge asked a lawyer in chambers how he got through law school, he told him he was embarrassed and suggested he work with a seasoned trial attorney before he came back to court. I’ve seen brilliant lawyers that attended schools that were considered middle of the road, and it all comes down to legal research, court room tactics and a few other skills. Drama/acting classes also help, and I know of a judge who told a lawyer he wasn’t allowed to practice in his court any longer because of comments the lawyer made about the judges ruling in his case. Just my opinion and by the way, I have enrolled in an online law school and I am 53. I don’t have the money to go to a full time law school. I am going to try and convince several states to let me take the bar as a test case. I will graduate next year (8/2013). We’ll see. I have no plans to practice law, just something to do. I retired from the Navy and a retired cop with a total of 30 yrs law enforcement experience and 8 of those yrs was working as a bailiff where I learned quite a bit.

Haydn February 28, 2013 at 6:05 am

True, if they are COMPLETELY unaccredited then yes, you will have to take the FYLSE, however, if it is accredited by the state of California and NOT by the ABA you do not need to take the “baby bar.”

Plus, if you go to an ABA accredited law school for your first year and then transfer to a completely unaccredited law school, you will not need to take the FYLSE.

Regardless, I think that ABA accreditation is pointless and a joke.

David Forde June 30, 2014 at 7:08 pm

@Jean interested in knowing which online school you chose to attend; also, since you’re twice retired, you’re able to accept cases for which you’re passionate! Just saying.

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