In December, Concord Law School, a 5-year-old online law school, hired Barry
Currier as its new dean.
A senior official involved in accrediting law schools at the Chicago-based
American Bar Association, Currier is among a number of ABA officials to become
deans at fledgling, unaccredited law schools in recent years.
Officials at several law schools acknowledge that administrators like Currier
provide credibility and help them meet the rigorous standards that are all
important to a school's survival.
The coziness between the ABA and law schools, though, troubles some educators
and others involved in accreditation. They question whether such hiring is at
odds with the ABA's ethics policy and contend such arrangements raise the
appearance of a conflict of interest.
"I think it's wrong that people in leadership in the accreditation process
end up back at law schools doing business before the accreditation
council," said Gary Palm, a Chicago lawyer who has served on the ABA's
governing body overseeing law school accreditation. "Particularly where
it's clear that they are there because of their special knowledge of the
The ABA, a national society of lawyers, denies that schools with deans who have
worked in the accreditation area receive special treatment.
"I think allegations that there are insiders that can influence the outcome
of accreditation decisions are just plain wrong," said John Sebert, who
heads the ABA accreditation staff and is a former law school dean.
The ABA's ethics policy specifically prohibits anyone who has "significant
responsibility" in the accreditation process from serving as a
"consultant" to a law school in any matter relating to accreditation
for a period of two years.
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the ABA as the only accrediting
agency for law schools. Getting ABA accreditation is critical to a law school's
reputation and vitally important to attracting students and faculty. It is
especially important for for-profit institutions that depend on tuition for a
large part of revenues.
In most states, including Illinois, students must graduate from an ABA-approved
law school before they can take the bar examination.
Several schools that received either full or partial ABA approval in the past
five years did so with deans that have insider connections.
Bernard Dobranski served on the ABA's accreditation committee, the panel
evaluating individual schools, for two years just before becoming the founding
dean at Ave Maria School of Law in Michigan in 1999. Three years later the
school received provisional accreditation, the first step toward full approval.
Dobranski, who was dean at two other law schools before going to Ave Maria, said
many administrators have experience in the ABA accreditation process because
they are asked to serve on site-inspection teams or committees. "I do
understand people who say this can be an old boy network, but I never saw myself
as being part of an insider network," he said.
The law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island attained provisional
accreditation in 1995 under John Ryan, who has served as chairman of the
In 2001, Ryan was hired as dean at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, which
had failed to win ABA approval for four years. The head of the school made no
secret about why Ryan was hired.
"With his long and distinguished career as a law school dean and professor,
as well as a past American Bar Association committee member, John Ryan carries
with him the wealth of experience that will continue to strengthen John Marshall
as it moves toward ABA accreditation," Michael C. Markovitz, chairman of
the school's board of trustees, said in a prepared statement at the time.
Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville received full accreditation in
2002, just a year after it hired J. Richard Hurt as dean. Hurt had been the No.
2 official in the ABA's accreditation office and had reviewed the school's
successful application for provisional accreditation.
"You definitely want someone in that position who is accreditation
savvy," said Donald Lively, who helped found the law school in 1996.
"If you don't have it, you'll suffer as an institution."
Still, Hurt's move to Florida Coastal appears inconsistent with the ABA's ethics
guidelines. But Sebert said Hurt did not violate the ABA's ethics rules because
the organization's interpretation of "consultant" is someone who
specifically sells accreditation-process expertise to schools.
"There's nothing in the guidelines that prohibits anyone from taking
full-time positions with law schools," he said.
"Deans at law schools do a lot more than just comply with ABA
standards," Sebert added. "It would be silly to disable them from
providing those leadership talents to an ABA law school or any law school."
School doesn't see conflict
Concord Law School does not see a conflict in hiring Currier, Hurt's successor
at the ABA, because the school is not seeking accreditation, said Jack Goetz,
current dean. The school, part of Kaplan Higher Education, currently is not
eligible for accreditation because the ABA requires classroom time for students.
All of Concord's classes are offered over the Internet.
"Barry has years of legal education expertise," Goetz said. "He
brings a lot of respect in the community."
Before working for the ABA, Currier was the dean of the law school at Samford
University in Alabama. He also was an associate dean at the University of
Florida College of Law.
But some legal educators say the distinction that the ABA makes between
consultants and full-time employees does not resolve the issue of a potential
"It's unseemly," said Robert Scott, former dean of the law school at
the University of Virginia and past president of the American Law Deans
Association. "One would like to think that the accreditation issues were
totally divorced from any consideration that might influence the outcome."
Hurt, who was the dean at Mississippi College School of Law from 1991 to 1998
before working for the ABA, did not return calls seeking comment.
He's now dean at the law school at Barry University in Orlando, which struggled
for years to gain full accreditation. When the ABA denied the school
accreditation in 2001, the dean at the time, Stanley Talcott, offered to resign
so the school could hire someone with better connections to the ABA, according
to published reports. Barry, a Catholic institution, won provisional
accreditation in 2002, and under Hurt's guidance has five years to gain full
"We were looking for someone who could move us forward," said Sister
Jeanne O'Laughlin, Barry president. "We look first to our missions before
we look to anything else. The fact that he had experience didn't hurt."
On the other hand, Sebert said such experience is not necessary. At least four
schools that have received ABA approval in the past five years, including
University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and the Appalachian School of Law in
Virginia, did not have deans with ABA backgrounds.
Moreover, Ryan's appointment at John Marshall Law School has not helped the
school win accreditation. The school has another ABA site visit scheduled for
Accreditation can enhance the value of a law school. Last month, a private
equity firm completed its purchase of Florida Coastal. Without accreditation,
the deal would not have been possible, Lively said.
"If you don't get accreditation in a timely fashion, the institution is
punched into a downward spiral," Lively said. "Who wants to take a
chance on a school that has struggled to get accreditation?"
ABA accreditation also helped make Florida Coastal more attractive to would-be
lawyers. In 2000, the year after Florida Coastal received provisional
accreditation, the number of applications more than doubled, to 1,647 from 676
the year before.
Since it assumed the role of an accrediting agency in 1921, the ABA has approved
only two commercial law schools out of 187 accredited institutions: Western
State in 1998 and Florida Coastal a year later. (Thomas Jefferson School of Law
was a for-profit school when it received provisional accreditation in 1996, but
now is a not-for-profit.)
Spurred by a complaint by another law school in Massachusetts, the Department of
Justice in 1995 launched an inquiry into possible antitrust violations by the
ABA's accreditation process. The small school outside of Boston, which was
denied accreditation, accused the ABA of operating a "cartel" that
limited competition by mandating specific faculty salary levels and requiring
that accredited law schools be organized as not-for-profit institutions.
The ABA settled the federal lawsuit a year later, which led to an overhaul of
its standards. Under the agreement, the ABA agreed not to fix teachers' salaries
and to open up the accreditation process so it no longer is dominated by law
faculty members. About 90 percent of the accreditation section personnel are law
school faculty members, who "captured and ran" the process to protect
the economic interests of their profession, the Justice Department said.
The ABA also agreed to make it easier for students to get credit for classes
taken at non-accredited law schools.
Following the consent decree, the Department of Education threatened to withdraw
the ABA's accrediting privilege unless it curtailed the authority of its House
of Delegates, the group's governing body, in having the final say over a
school's accreditation. The DOE wanted accreditation decisions to be independent
of a political body.
The ABA revised its rules once again in 1999 to give the House only an advisory
role in the evaluation process. The accreditation council, composed of 21
members, has final say on accreditation decisions.
But only last month, Western State University College of Law in Southern
California, sued the ABA, alleging that the organization is unfairly seeking to
strip the school of its accreditation because it has a "historic
hostility" toward for-profit law schools.
The ABA denies the charge. Sebert said the council decided in December to
rescind the school's provisional accreditation, won in 1998, because it was not
meeting several standards, including bar-passage rates. But last week, the
council reconsidered and gave the school one more chance to gain full approval.