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Bar committee considers uniform law school accreditation standard, shorter exam

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

If a public forum held last month is any indication, the State Bar committee charged with overseeing legal education and admitting new lawyers can expect a fair amount of support as it moves forward with two key proposals.

The Committee of Bar Examiners invited legal educators to comment May 3 on proposals that would shorten the bar exam from three days to two and require that unaccredited law schools earn their California accreditation. The latter of the two proposals, which generated the greatest amount of discussion, would also expand the accreditation rules to distance learning schools, which teach students remotely through classes and lectures over the Internet.

Greg Brandes, the dean of Concord Law School, a distance learning school, urged the committee not to include a lot of requirements specific to distance learning in the accreditation process. The 40-percent cumulative bar passage rule already required of accredited schools should be enough to ensure distance learning schools serve the public interest, he said.

“With that rule, which would now apply to those distance learning who might become accredited under these proposals, you have assurance that those schools will protect the public over time,” he said.

Mitchel Winick, dean of Monterey College of Law, said he and many of the other California-accredited law school deans also favor a unified set of accreditation rules, telling the committee, “You’re exactly on the right track to that.”

“The idea of a multiple set of registrations and listings leading to accreditation has always had the risk of being confusing to the public, confusing to law students,” Winick said. “So count us in.”

Under the law school proposal being considered, all unaccredited law schools registered in California would have to meet the standards for accreditation within 10 years. The committee’s authority to accredit law schools would also be expanded to distance learning schools.

Like the other California-accredited law school deans, Jane Gamp of San Francisco Law School said she favors one set of accreditation rules for distance and brick-and-mortar schools. But she said she was concerned about when the 40-percent passage rate rule would go into effect and whether distance learning schools would be able to call themselves provisionally accredited before meeting the requirement.

“We would like the criteria to be that you have to be in very close range to that or hit the 40 percent before you are able to call yourself even provisionally accredited,” she said. “You have to be in the same ballpark as the rest of us.”

Dean Barbieri, dean of John F. Kennedy University, was one of the few participants at the May 3 forum to speak extensively on the committee’s other proposal: shortening the bar exam from three days to two. A longtime grader of the bar exam, Barbieri cautioned the committee against doing anything that has a negative impact on the test, which he called “the best bar exam in the country without a doubt.”

Specifically, Barbieri was concerned about the idea of reducing the number of essay questions applicants have to complete, increasing  the weight of the multiple choice portion of the exam and reducing the length of the one remaining performance test  to make the exam fit within a two-day window.

Admissions Director Gayle Murphy said many consider California’s test to be the toughest in the country, not because of its length but because it requires a higher score to pass. In addition, studies commissioned by the committee show that shortening the exam wouldn’t change the outcome for most test-takers.