The Massachusetts School of Law has been asking a provocative question since it opened nearly 20 years ago: Should the legal profession be limited only to the white and the wealthy?
The low-cost school in Andover proudly bills itself as the common man's law school, one that accommodates working professionals, offers a practical legal education, and charges affordable tuition.
It has also spent much of its existence battling the American Bar Association, which has refused to accredit the school because it does not require LSAT scores, does not have a large library, and has a high number of part-time faculty, among other factors. The lack of the ABA imprimatur means graduates are unable to take the bar exam in numerous states, preventing them from practicing law in those places.
And yesterday, in their continuing clash with the ABA, school officials appeared before a US Department of Education committee in Washington, D.C, to denounce the association's "monopolistic" accreditation policies, which they say hinder minority, immigrant, and working-class enrollment. They also asked that the ABA be stripped of its right to accredit the nation's law schools.
"When law schools cost $35,000 or $40,000, that hurts people from more modest backgrounds, and it doesn't take Einstein to figure out that the more law schools cost , the fewer people who can go to law school. But that benefits the legal profession, and that's the way they want it," said associate dean Michael L. Coyne, who recently authored a National Law Journal article titled "End the ABA's Tyranny."
School officials have protested the ABA's accreditation role before, most recently at a federal hearing in 2000. But they hope the committee will be more sympathetic this time in the wake of a recent report by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. That report concluded that accrediting agencies judge schools too much on financial and procedural issues and too little on how well students are taught, how much they learn, and how well trained they are when they graduate.
"They know this is like tilting at windmills," Kirby F. Smith, the school's marketing director, said of the school's quest to have the ABA's accreditation function terminated, "but they think it's important to do."
An ABA spokeswoman said the association "will not be in a position to comment" because the hearing continued until late yesterday afternoon. The executive director of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which periodically reviews the ABA's accreditation role, was out of the office and could not be reached.
Opened in 1988, the Massachusetts School of Law charges $13,300 a year, uses a medical school model in which many of its professors are practicing lawyers, and is accredited by the state and the New England Association of School and Colleges. About 20 percent of its student body is minority and the average student is about 33 years old, according to school officials.
In 1995, the Department of Justice and ABA reached a consent agreement -- prompted in part by a Massachusetts School of Law lawsuit that accused the ABA of antitrust violations -- in which the association agreed to overhaul its accreditation process.
"If we continue to allow the ABA to control access to the legal profession, then the legal profession and law schools will be left to the preserve of the white and wealthy, and that's wrong on so many counts," Coyne said. "It shouldn't only be lawyers and other law schools worried about this. The public should be concerned, too, because unfortunately lawyers have such enormous power in society . . . and we should all want a more diverse group of people having that power."
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.