Just How Hard is it to Be an ABA Accredited Law School?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on May 17, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As prospective students consider their law-school options, some may be wondering about law schools that aren't accredited by the ABA. What's the difference -- and what's the big deal, anyway?

In general, earning a Juris Doctor from one of the 200 ABA-accredited law schools allows you to sit for the bar exam in any U.S. state. ABA-accredited schools are generally considered more "credible" in the legal world -- and usually come with higher tuition and fees.

By contrast, law degrees from schools not accredited by the ABA -- but instead accredited by a state bar or state legislature -- are usually only good in that state. But there are other differences as well.

ABA-accredited law schools must meet all of the "Standards for Approval of Law Schools," set by the ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

The 2011-12 Standards include 48 specific standards that ABA-accredited law schools must meet. These standards cover a school's faculty, administration, educational program, admissions, information resources, and facilities. For example, a law school:

  • Must schedule at least 130 days of regular classes over eight calendar months in its academic year;
  • Must generally require at least 58,000 minutes of instruction for students before graduation, at least 45,000 of which must be classroom instruction;
  • Must have full-time faculty teaching the "major portion" of curriculum; and
  • Must take "reasonable steps" to minimize student loan defaults, such as offering debt counseling.

The ABA's law school accreditation process is tedious, and has been the subject of lawsuits by schools that fail to meet all of the Standards. One such school, Lincoln Memorial University's Duncan School of Law in Tennessee, sued the ABA for antitrust violations, among other claims, after it was denied ABA accreditation in December.

Critics of the ABA's accreditation process say it's used to "artificially reduce" the number of law schools, which forces students to attend pricey ABA-accredited schools; those students must then charge high rates to cover their debt upon graduation.

"The end result makes even basic legal services extremely expensive, especially for the poor and the lower middle class," one law professor blogged.

From a law school's perspective, the ABA accreditation process "all but prohibits the law-school equivalent of the Honda Civic -- a low-cost model that delivers," The New York Times observed.

So should you consider an unaccredited law school? The answer depends on your career goals, and your finances. Many graduates of unaccredited law schools have gone on to successful, and lucrative, careers. Just think carefully before you choose which path is best for you.

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