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Accredited vs. Unaccredited Law Schools

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When choosing a law school, one important factor to consider is the school's status as an accredited or unaccredited law school. An accredited law school is one that has received American Bar Association (ABA) approval, a process that can take several years.

Here is an overview of accredited and unaccredited law schools, including the main differences between the two.

Is Accreditation Required for Law Schools?

The majority of states require a person to obtain a law degree from an ABA-approved law school before they can sit for the bar examination and practice law. Around 200 schools in the United States meet this requirement.

However, California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington allow law students from non-ABA schools to obtain a law license. In these jurisdictions, attending an unaccredited school is no impediment to practicing law, though the state bar may require law office study or a period of apprenticeship before a person can be qualified to practice law. Finally, some states such as Maine, New York, and Wyoming require a combination of law school attendance (though not completion) and law office study.

It is also important to note who accredited a school since there are other accrediting organizations other than the ABA. The California Bar Association (CBA), for example, has accredited a number of California law schools that lack ABA accreditation. However, California permits you to apply for the bar even if you haven't attended law school at all.

What are the Risks of Attending an Unaccredited Law School?

Unaccredited law schools have been the subject of a significant amount of criticism. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of investigative articles that revealed that a startlingly high number of students in California unaccredited law programs dropped out, and of the few that managed to complete their study, only a small percentage subsequently managed to pass the bar exam.

In 2019, only 14% of graduates from California's unaccredited law schools passed the bar exam.

These statistics should concern any prospective student. But there are other concerns about non-accredited schools as well. Problems with these programs include the possibility of:

  • Less geographic mobility
  • Lower starting salaries
  • Employer disfavor
  • Less prestige
  • Fewer facilities
  • Less oversight and regulation
  • Lower completion and bar passage rates

Many unaccredited law schools are also for-profit institutions, which come with their own set of concerns.

Of course, your individual needs may override these concerns. Still, you should carefully consider how these potential drawbacks might impact your career plans since some students have found themselves saddled with a significant amount of student debt with no reasonable means to repay it.

What Benefits Do Unaccredited Law Schools Offer?

Even if there are reasons to criticize unaccredited law schools, it can't be ignored that, for some, attendance remains a wise decision. Advocates for unaccredited programs say that they provide opportunities for students who otherwise would not have been able to access a legal education.

Unaccredited law schools may have a decent reputation, at least locally, or you may intend to start your own practice, which would eliminate at least some of the concerns about reputation and employability. Law school graduates who studied at an unaccredited law school typically point to four major benefits for prospective students, namely:

  • Flexible schedules
  • Distance learning options
  • Lower admission standards
  • Lower tuition

Lower tuition, in particular, can mean a very different post-graduate situation. However, it is worth considering whether it is wise to assume that you will be able to pass a bar exam, particularly in a state like California (which is known to have one of the hardest bar exams in the nation), without the resources and assistance that an accredited law school can provide. This should be a particular concern if your undergraduate GPA and LSAT score were not impressive enough to secure admission to an accredited law school.

What's Next?

Whether you want to attend an accredited institution or unaccredited law school, your career planning will be most successful if you educate yourself about your future learning and working environments. Fortunately, we can help you prepare. Read more about the decisions you will face in law school and beyond in FindLaw's resources for law students.

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