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The path to reforming the ABA standards to promote law student well-being

Well-Being Discussion
The ABA Law Student Division and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs have proposed changes to ABA Standards to address well-being for law students.

Most of the law students reading this are attending accredited law schools.  But very few of us know what accreditation means. The U.S. Department of Education has recognized the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education, through its Council, as the entity that accredits law schools.

As we learn on the ABA’s website, when the ABA was first formed in 1878, one of the first standing committees was the Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar. All state supreme courts recognize the ABA’s accredited schools as meeting the education requirements to sit for a bar exam, and most states (46) require attending an accredited school as the only path to sitting for the bar exam.  Today, there are 199 accredited law schools in the United States; detailed rules exist for approving new schools or removing schools that have failed to meet essential requirements.

The requirements for accreditation are thus quite important. These requirements are set out in the ABA Standards and Rules for Approval of Law Schools, often called the “Standards.” The Standards, in 7 chapters, include many baseline rules for all accredited law schools, on topics including administration, faculty, law libraries and other facilities.

Over the years, the Standards on the Program of Legal Education (the Curriculum) have evolved to reflect changed norms of what an essential law school education should be. For example, the current standards require every law student to study professional responsibility, first year and upper level writing courses, and experiential learning.  The Standards now articulate four core learning outcomes.  They identify essential student services and minimum bar passage rates.

These reflect significant reforms in the legal profession, and the role of law schools in preparing students to succeed in our changing world.

Revising the Standards to address law Student well-being

Each year, the Council invites interested parties to submit recommendations to improve upon the Standards. Over the past three years, the ABA Law Student Division and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, have written to the Council three times to request multiple revisions to the Standards to reflect critical education and services on law student well-being.  One of the gifts of this global pandemic is that the Council finally heard our call.

In February, 2021, at the ABA Midyear Meeting, the Council announced two proposed sets of changes to the ABA Standards.  First, the Council proposed that Standard 303, defining the Curriculum, add a new interpretation that defines professional identity as “what it means to be a lawyer and the special obligations lawyers have to their clients and society.” The interpretation tells law schools to create “frequent opportunities” starting in the first year to learn more about professional identity.

The time for law schools to fear, stigmatize and place barriers around mental health is no more.

The Council also proposed changes to Standard 508, which describes essential Student Services, to include “law student well-being resources.” These resources would include mental health and substance use resources, as well as critical services such as food pantries and emergency funds.  While many law schools are already providing these services, having them codified in the Standards ensures that all law schools must address these critical issues.

We also requested some additional curriculum changes such as a mandatory course around lawyer well-being, mental health, and substance use. The Council did not adopt this recommendation.

During the Notice and Comment period in March, 40 comment letters were submitted to the Council. They are all part of the public record. Only two of the letters opposed any changes. Thirty-eight letters were submitted supporting the direction of the changes on behalf of many law schools, deans, and other thought leaders such as the Holloran Center, the AccessLex Institute, and the Institute for Well-Being in Law. Many of the comment letters recommended some revisions to the proposed language, but still strongly embraced the agenda of including professional identity and well-being explicitly in the Standards.

The ABA Law Student Division partnered with the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, the ABA Young Lawyers Division, and the ABA Coordinating Group on Practice Forward to submit comments to the Council.  

If you are deeply interested in this topic, we encourage you to read the entire letter and our detailed recommendations for the Standards.

Next steps

The Council will next meet on May 14. We expect that they will announce next steps on these proposed changes based upon the comments received, which may include further language changes. The Council may circulate these again for notice and comment or to submit them directly to the ABA House of Delegates for a vote at the August Annual Meeting of the ABA. Our work is not yet done until these revisions receive final approval.

Law students still have an opportunity to make their views heard on these important changes. Law students have representation on the ABA Council and also in the ABA House of Delegates.  This advocacy process demonstrates our power in shaping the future of our law school education, and its direct impact on our own lives and on the future of the profession that we are entering.

We need to continue work towards providing law students with the resources and tools required for not only understanding, but also addressing substance abuse and mental health challenges. The time for law schools to fear, stigmatize and place barriers around mental health is no more. Now is the time to bring these issues to light, openly and proudly, with the support of the ABA.

The proposed changes to the ABA Standards are one more step towards the important agenda of advocating for law student well-being.

Janet Stearns and Ayat Nizam Janet E. Stearns is the Dean of Students at the University of Miami School of Law and a member of the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, where she is an advocate for wellness programming in law schools. Ayat Nizam is a 3L Dual JD and Class President at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and serves as the 2020-2021 Chair of the ABA Law Student Division.