The mighty American Bar Association agreed last week to change its procedures for approving law schools after a justice department investigation showed they had led to inflated salaries for law professors, writes Lucy Hodges.
In doing so, the ABA - the world's largest professional organisation with 370,000 lawyer members - settled charges by the United States government that it violated federal anti-monopoly laws through its methods for accrediting law schools.
"The ABA's accreditation process required that universities raise salaries to artificially inflated levels and meet other costly accreditation requirements that had little to do with the quality of legal education they provided," said Anne Bingaman, assistant attorney general in charge of the antitrust division. "The settlement . . . stops this anti-competitive conduct."
But the association was admitting nothing. President George Bushnell said of the allegations: "We absolutely, categorically deny them and believe we're right." The association had agreed to settle the case "to get the damn thing behind us so we can get on with the business of legal education".
The agreement follows a year-long investigation that was triggered largely by a case brought by a small, upstart law school in Andover, Massachusetts. It had been denied ABA accreditation on the grounds that it did not have the required number of full-time staff or enough books in the library.
The Massachusetts School of Law argued that it maintained high standards of teaching, but that its emphasis on keeping down costs enabled needy people to acquire a legal education. Its dean, Lawrence Velvel, was delighted by last week's settlement.
He said the consent decree barred explicitly some of the practices the school had been objecting to and put others through a searching examination. "I don't think there's any doubt this is a vindication of everything we've been saying in court and out for two or three years," he said.
The association has routinely required law schools seeking accreditation to pay professional staff on the same pay scales as other ABA-approved law schools. Under last week's settlement, the association is prohibited from gathering or disseminating data from law schools on salaries paid to deans, administrators, professors, librarians or any other employees as part of the accrediting process.
The association has also agreed to drop its practice of denying accreditation to any law school that operates for profit. Until now, the association has required law schools to maintain a ratio of 20 students to each academic teacher. It did not allow schools to count administrators who teach, or part-time teachers such as other lawyers or judges. The Massachusetts School of Law relied on part-timers.
The ABA also said that full-time teachers could teach no more than eight hours a week. An hour was defined as 50 minutes. It required law schools to provide paid leave for faculty members.
Under the agreement, the association is to set up a committee to examine its criteria relating to student-teacher ratios, teaching loads, sabbatical policy and bar preparation courses.
The ABA also agreed that no more than 40 per cent of the committee that nominates officers for its section that deals with accrediting can be law school deans or professors. That is an attempt to have the accrediting process overseen by a balanced group of people with no particular parochial interest.
Ronald Cass, dean of Boston University's law school who is leading a group of deans which is trying to reform ABA accreditation, said the agreement was a step in the right direction. But he doubted it would halt the upward drift of law professors' salaries at elite law schools.
Competition for the best law professors was more important in pushing up costs at these schools than any price fixing, he said.