Legal Affairs
space

space


...Join 'Em

Barry Currier was Concord Law School's biggest critic. Now he's a believer.

By Geoffrey Gagnon

CONCORD LAW SCHOOL has caught the legal community's attention. Now it's in the market for some respect. The online school is the first of its kind and was launched in 1998 by Kaplan, the company behind the ubiquitous test-prep courses. It offers streaming audio files instead of face-to-face lectures. Aspiring students with an Internet connection can earn a law degree in four years for an affordable $28,000.

Concord's enrollment has ballooned from 33 students to 2,000 students in five years, making it one of the biggest law schools in the United States. And to critics who said its students would not excel without the human interaction and Socratic method of a traditional legal class, Concord offers this stat: Sixty percent of its first graduating class (granted, 6 out of 10 students) passed the California bar exam on the first try. That's 10 percentage points better than the statewide first-time average.

But California is the only state where Concord graduates are allowed to take the bar. State bar organizations decide who takes their exam, which law students must pass to become lawyers. But most state bars don't have the resources to assess the quality of law schools and instead look to the American Bar Association to decide which schools offer a solid legal education. And while 30 states offer options for students from schools shunned by the ABA who want to take the bar, the most direct route to a seat on test day runs through the bar association. But the ABA doesn't give Concord a passing grade, and a law degree from a school without accreditation from the ABA (or another accrediting body recognized by a state bar) is little more than an expensive piece of paper.

At least that's what Barry Currier of the ABA has said of degrees from schools without accreditation. Currier is the deputy consultant on legal education at the bar association, and oversees its accreditation process. He explained to The National Law Journal last year, "The question is not why shouldn't Concord be approved" for accreditation, he said, "but rather why should it be approved?"

Concord isn't like most law schools—and not just because it doesn't have a traditional infrastructure. The school is aimed at working professionals who think that legal education will help them in their current jobs. Students are allowed to enroll at four different times during the year. Their average age is 43, and nearly half of them already hold advanced degrees. If Currier is to be believed, however, they're wasting their money. Concord, he told a Business Week reporter last November, fails to provide "a sound program of legal education."

A month later, Concord announced its next dean: Barry Currier. "Well, a guy's allowed to change his mind, isn't he?" said the school's founding dean, Jack Goetz, who will make room for Currier this June by taking another position at Kaplan. Goetz insists that Currier was previously just spouting the ABA's line. But Goetz also acknowledges that Currier's influence at the ABA is attractive to Concord. The online school might be young, but its leaders are not naïve. They may well be looking to hire their way into the ABA's good graces.

Not so, said Currier. "The ABA's just one piece of what I've done," he said. Before he took charge of ABA accreditation in 2000, Currier was a real estate law professor and an associate dean at the University of Florida College of Law and then dean at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law in Alabama. But Currier admitted that it's his most recent work at the ABA that probably tipped the scales in his favor at Concord. He said that his job at the ABA has kept him in regular contact with judges, lawyers, bar administrators, and law school officials—allowing him to form connections to facilitate the "conversation" that, in his new view, is needed to push the legal community toward accepting online legal education.

As for the seemingly contradictory statements that he's made about Concord, Currier said that his mindset remains the same. "This doesn't change my fundamental point of view," Currier said of his hiring. "Concord can't be accredited the way the rules are currently written, and those rules will have to evolve."

The ABA rule book has not only required physical libraries and classrooms but also stated that "a law school shall not grant credit for study by correspondence." This prohibition was eased two years ago, when the accreditation standards were revised to allow some "distance education" credits to be applied to a degree. "When we started, the ABA didn't allow any credits to be earned online," Goetz said. "Now they allow for 12 credits; that's about 15 percent of an ABA-approved education. The movement is glacial, but at least it's movement."

Until there's more, the District of Columbia and the 49 states besides California are unlikely to let Concord grads take their bars. Students who attend Concord from other states have to live in or move to the Golden State if they want to practice law. Farzad Naeim was lucky enough to live in California. "I knew without passing the bar I would have wasted four years of my life," said Naeim, a member of Concord's class of 2003. Naeim has parlayed his new degree into a new job title—he is now general counsel at the earthquake engineering firm where he's worked for two decades. But the majority of Concord grads remain hamstrung in their efforts to become lawyers.

Naeim credits his success to the inventive make-your-own-schedule format that he said Concord provides. The incoming dean couldn't agree more about Concord's strengths and now sings its praises, citing the school's low cost and the flexibility of its curriculum. He blamed a stodgy legal academy for slowing innovation and said the ABA needs to evolve as well. "I want to be respectful of my current job," Currier said from his office at the ABA. "It's served the legal community well and doesn't need to be abandoned, just reformed a bit."

As Concord's dean, Currier said he aims to transform the legal world by changing minds about what constitutes a good legal program. He's off to a great start—he's changed his own mind already....

space