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Valparaiso Law public censure puts admission policies to test

November 30, 2016
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The ABA publicly censured Valparaiso University Law School Nov. 15 for non-compliance with admissions standards. (IL file photo)

Only weeks after Indiana Tech Law School suddenly announced it would be closing at the end of the academic year, another Indiana law school found itself in the news, dealing with a public censure from the American Bar Association over past admissions practices.

How much the sanction will impact that school, Valparaiso University Law School, depends on who you ask.

The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar posted the notice of public censure Nov. 15, after the ABA Accreditation Committee found the northern Indiana law school had not demonstrated compliance with Standards 501(a) and 501(b). Those standards require that “a law school shall maintain sound admission policies and practices” and “shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”

The ABA conducts law school site visits and completes re-accreditation reports every seven years and last visited Valparaiso during the 2013-2014 school year. The censure references the school’s admissions practices in the seven years leading up to its site visit, Dean Andrea Lyon said. years when she was not the dean.

Jay Conison was at the helm of the school at that time. Although he had announced his plan to retire as dean in May 2014, Conison instead accepted an offer in spring 2013 to become dean of the Charlotte School of Law, a position he still holds.

The ABA also placed Charlotte School of Law on probation this month for failure to comply with admissions standards.

Both the ABA and Conison declined to comment.

As a result of the censure, Valparaiso must develop a written plan by Dec. 15 for bringing the law school into compliance; submit admissions data and methodology to the ABA Accreditation Committee by Dec. 15; publish the notice of the public censure on its website; and review class quartile rankings of first-time bar exam passage rates with students each semester. Notice of the censure is posted on the school’s home page under “ABA Required Disclosures.”

The ABA will visit Valparaiso and submit a separate report about the admission practices. If the law school does not meet admission standards, the legal education program could face a variety of sanctions including a monetary fine, refunding all or part of the tuition or fees paid by students, and loss of accreditation.

The process of reviewing a law school’s admissions policies and determining compliance with ABA standards generally takes about two years, and it is unusual for the ABA section to take the step of a public censure. In August, the section issued a public notice requiring Ave Maria School of Law to take remedial actions in regard to its admissions policies, though the school did not receive a public censure. The last school to be publicly censured was University of Kansas School of Law in December 2013.

Lyon said the censure is the ABA’s way of saying, “Fix this,” which she said she has been doing since she became dean in July 2014. Lyon said the school’s LSAT scores and GPAs have been increasing, and the bottom percentile has gone up by four points in two years.

“We have a much smaller, much stronger class that came in this year, and we’ve been doing that since I got here,” Lyon said.

Kyle McEntee, executive director and co-founder of Law School Transparency, does not see an easy way forward for Valparaiso. The 2016 entering class had a median LSAT score of 147, which is a modest improvement, he said, but not enough for the law school overcome this new obstacle.

Valparaiso is already having trouble meeting the current ABA’s standards for bar passage and those requirements could get more rigorous, McEntee said. A proposal from the Council of the ABA for the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar would close some loopholes and mandate that law schools post a 75 percent bar passage rate for graduates within two years of graduation.

The proposal is scheduled to be presented to the ABA House of Delegates in February 2017. Even if the delegates do not give their approval, McEntee expects the ABA legal education section will adopt the new standards anyway.

Former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard chaired the ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education and said he was surprised that Valparaiso was one of two law schools the ABA singled out.

“I hadn’t heard of any reason why Valparaiso might turn out to find itself in this particular situation, but I think the fact is, they have a lot of company,” he said. “This is fairly strong medicine.

“The characteristics of falling numbers of applicants and declining LSAT scores and lower bar passage rates is a story that is a phenomenon that’s been going on all over the country for five or six years,” he said.

From a peak of about 100,000 law school applicants several years back to recent numbers just over half that, the smaller pool of applicants has forced institutions into tough decisions — admit similar-sized classes with lower LSAT scores and grades, or slash the size of classes to keep admission standards high.

“My expectation would be that if you were to look around country, you’d find a number of situations where schools are in a similar posture,” he said. “I think it’s a challenge for more schools than most people are willing to admit.”

In the past, Lyon said the ABA has conveyed such concerns about admissions practices and standards non-compliance privately to schools, but is now doing so publicly. The dean said she regrets that the bar association felt the need to share the news of her school’s compliance issues publicly because doing so caused some of her students to fear that their school would lose its accreditation or be closed down, a fear she says is unfounded.

“I can’t blame them,” Lyon said. “Censure sounds bad.”

McEntee anticipates more law schools will be slapped with censures and probations like Valparaiso and Charlotte. In fact, he was surprised that Valparaiso was not put on probation.

“I don’t think Valparaiso is being punished just for incidents under the former dean because it has maintained the same low admission standards from when he left until now.”

Shepard has a more positive outlook on Valparaiso’s future.

“This is a solid school with a lot of able faculty and a well-established reputation,” he said, noting its graduates hold important law firm and judicial leadership positions in northwest Indiana and around the state. “I think there’s every reason to believe they’ll work their way through this.”

“We’ll do everything we can to be within the guidelines,” Lyon said. “We’ve been producing great lawyers for 137 years, and we’re going to continue to produce great lawyers for the next 137 years at least.”•

Reporters Marilyn Odendahl and Dave Stafford contributed to this story.

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