A tiny law school in Massachusetts is taking on the mighty American Bar Association by suing it for monopolistic practices.
The unprecedented David and Goliath struggle is expected to last years and to cost lots of money. The Massachusetts School of Law believes it is fighting for the right of ordinary Americans to get a legal education; the ABA says it is defending a quality legal training.
"The ABA has chosen to fight to the death," said Michael Coyne, associate dean of the law school and a full-time professor. "But if it intends it to be our death, it will be mistaken."
Two years ago, the fledgling Massachusetts School of Law, which enrolled 667 students this year, failed to meet ABA accreditation standards. Its student-teacher ratio was above the 30:1 required by the ABA. A visiting team decided its ratio was more like 105:1.
Lawrence Velvel, dean and founder of the law school, decided to take legal action. Without accreditation, the law school's students cannot receive financial aid from the federal government (student grants and loans) and its graduates may not practise law in many other states - though they can practise in Massachusetts because the school has state accreditation.
The school is using anti-monopoly legislation to challenge the accreditation rules laid down by the ABA, a membership organisation of 370,000 lawyers.
The school believes it is fighting to give Americans a legal education they can afford. It claims that the high cost of today's law schools freezes out those who are trying to do the job of teaching law to a budget. There is little doubt that the bar association's requirements drive up costs. They specify salary levels, for example, as well as the number of books in the law library. They also limit the use of part-time teaching staff.
The Massachusetts School of Law manages to cut a lot of corners. It uses many part-time academics, and salaries are low compared with accredited law schools. Its home is a commercial park which was languishing unused until the school bought it for $5.3 million. Its complement of 30,000 legal books were acquired for $85,000 from a law firm going out of business.
Its moot court is held in a courthouse rescued from demolition, and classrooms have folding tables and lightweight chairs.
Such cost-consciousness means that tuition fees are only $9,000 this year, around 60 per cent of the median private law school in New England, according to Mr Velvel. For example, fees at Boston University this year are $18,700.
Such low fees enable the law school to serve working-class students, he says. Many students live and work nearby, and some enrol for night classes to keep day jobs.
According to the ABA, the rules laid down for accreditation are to give consumers protection and to assure quality legal education. The student-teacher ratio is justified on the grounds that teachers need time to conduct research, to meet students and to prepare properly.
The law school says it employs 15 full-time academics (all of whom do other jobs, such as working in practice or administration at the college) and 75 part-timers. Staff have a big teaching load, bigger than the two courses a semester laid down by the ABA.
In support of its case, the law school has looked across the Atlantic to Britain. Robert Stevens, master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and a historian of legal education in the United States, has submitted evidence to show that Oxford dons are expected to teach more than their American counterparts.
"If we win, it will mean real reform," said Professor Coyne. "Different methods of teaching and learning will be brought to law schools, and there will be more diversity in the type of education and students we have."
Enabling less advantaged people to go to law school would open the law up to a more compassionate type of person, he said. As it is, people are driven into law by the financial rewards. It would be positively beneficial to have law taught by those who are in practice, he said.
While the legal case is being prepared, the Justice Department has announced its own inquiry into law school accreditation. That move is a direct result of the law school's complaint. It could bring separate charges against the ABA, which has already spent more than $1.1 million defending itself in the Massachusetts case.
Dissent within the association has been brewing for a while. Changes have been made to some accreditation procedures and more are in the pipeline.