State Bar of California Releases Proposed New Rules Governing Law School Accreditation for Public Comment

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By Juan M. Villalvazo

At its November 19, 2020 meeting (Item 701), the State Bar of California’s Board of Trustees voted to release a series of proposed rules to replace the existing Rules for Accredited Law Schools (Rules of the State Bar, Title 4) for a 60-day public comment period, ending on February 15, 2021. The proposed rules are the result of the Board’s directive (p. 3) at its January 25, 2019, meeting that the Committee of Bar Examiners (CBE), in consultation with the newly-formed Committee of State Bar Accredited and Registered Schools (CSBARS), prepare revisions to the rules that incorporate best practices in accreditation, and propose additional requirements that a law school should meet in order to operate in California if a regional or national institutional accreditor also accredited that law school.  [24:2 CRLR 271–273]

According to the staff memo, CSBARS met 11 times at public meetings to formulate the updated rules proposal during which they interviewed leadership at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), reviewed the principles and practices of institutional and programmatic accreditors, received feedback from current law school leadership, gathered suggestions made during the last three years of CBE meetings, and engaged in a structured drafting process. CSBARS determined that the accredited rules proposal should be built around four key purposes for accreditation: (1) consumer protection and transparency; (2) student success; (3) diversity, equity, and inclusion; (4) and preparation for licensure and professionalism (proposed rule 4.160).

At its August 21, 2020 meeting, CBE reviewed CSBARS’ proposal, as well as an alternative proposal prepared by staff. To ensure consideration of both options, CBE assigned a subcommittee of two CBE members to review the proposals closely. The subcommittee finalized a single proposal, which included elements from the CSBARS proposal, some of the staff alternatives, and several additional amendments. CBE voted to approve the subcommittee’s recommended revisions to the rules at its October 16, 2020 meeting, which is the version the Board ultimately released for public comment.

The proposed new rules include a “jointly accredited” status for law schools that have earned an institutional accreditation, most likely through the WASC Senior College and University Commission, as the major accreditor of most west coast universities, or the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, a key institutional accreditor for programs that are offered 51 percent or more through distance education, or one of six other regional accreditors. Law schools that complete the process required to earn this type of institutional accreditation are proposed to be recognized by the State Bar, as long as those schools also demonstrate compliance with the subset of core rules identified in proposed Rule 4.147(C), including maintaining a minimum, cumulative bar exam passage rate, ensuring that students meet prelegal and legal education requirements for taking the California bar exam and complying with the new rules for diversity, equity, and inclusion.  In addition, under the accredited rules proposal, when CBE suspects that a school is out of compliance with a rule, a law school is to proffer all evidence of compliance or plans to return to compliance upfront in order to allow the CBE to make a fully informed decision and take corrective action as soon as reasonably possible.

At CBE’s March 26, 2021 meeting, the Bar’s Interim Executive Officer, Donna Hershkowitz, suggested some additional technical edits to the proposed rules. The Office of General Counsel is reviewing the additional modifications to assess whether they will need to be released for additional public comment.  CBE expects to review again at its April meeting, and aims to present to the Board of Trustees for final approval at its May meeting.

 

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