American Bar Association in Chicago. July 16, 2011. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

The American Bar Association body that reigns over the nation’s law schools is contemplating a major reorganization intended to cut costs, streamline operations and allow it to respond to problem schools faster.

The reorganization is still a concept at this point, but the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is scheduled to discuss the idea at its meeting June 2 in Portland, Oregon. The council could decide whether or not to pursue the reorganization further.

Under the current reorganization concept, the duties of the existing Standards Review Committee and the law school Accreditation Committee would be transferred to the 21-member council—the body that has the final say on law school matters.

That change would reduce expenses by eliminating many committee meetings, free up ABA staff, and give council members a better understanding of the day-to-day operations of law school oversight because they would be more closely involved, according to an overview report submitted to the council by Barry Currier, who runs the legal education section.

The proposed reorganization comes at a time when the ABA’s legal education section is facing increased pressure from critics and the U.S. Department of Education, which grants the ABA the authority to accredit law schools, for being lax on underperforming campuses. The section has stepped up its enforcement efforts over the past year in response.

At the same time, the section is facing “revenue challenges” due to a reduction in funds from the larger ABA and other factors, according to the overview document. The document does not specify the amount of any funding shortfall within the section, though the ABA’s board of governors in February approved cutting nearly $11 million from the entire organization’s operating budget for fiscal year 2018. ABA membership has been declining for years.

Currier was unavailable to discuss the reorganization plan this week, saying only that, “the conversation about it has been very informal, and all that we are asking for at this meeting is a signal that doing more work on it would not be a waste of time. Nothing has been agreed to yet.”

The section’s 18-member staff has also been stretched thin by having to prepare for and attend a multitude of committee meetings, and their work has suffered as a result, the overview says. The savings achieved by merging those two committees into the council and reducing the number of meetings from 16 a year to just four could help fund additional section staff or technology improvements. Moreover, the proposed changes would avoid the duplication of work and “allow for faster action for schools with serious issues,” the overview continues.

The proposed reorganization represents a significant departure from the existing structure of the Section of Legal Education. Currently, the 17-member Standards Review Committee meets four or five times a year to review and propose changes to the ABA’s myriad law school standards, which are rules governing everything from how law schools admit students to the protections they must give faculty members. The council must approve all of those proposed changes before they are final.

Similarly, the 19-member Accreditation Committee makes recommendations to the council on accreditation matters, including bestowing new accreditation on schools, reaccrediting schools, and withdrawing existing accreditation or placing law schools on probation for accreditation shortfalls.

Hence, folding the work of those committees into the council would increase its workload significantly.

Charlotte School of Law offers an example of how drawn out the existing committee and disciplinary process can be. An accreditation evaluation team first identified problems with the school’s admissions practices in September 2014, according to court papers filed in several fraud lawsuits brought against the school by students.

The Accreditation Committee twice concluded that Charlotte was out of compliance with its standards, yet it was not until November 2016 that the council formally placed the school on probation for admissions violations—a decision that prompted the Education Department to revoke the school’s eligibility for federal student loans. (The fraud suits allege the school should have disclosed its accreditation problems to students sooner.)  The two years between the identification of Charlotte’s accreditation shortcomings and formal discipline by the ABA brought a series of responses from the school, requests for additional information from the school by the ABA, and hearings on the matter.

In addition to eliminating the separate Accreditation and Standards Review Committees, the council may opt to give it and its executive committee the power to act on accreditation and other matters in between regularly scheduled meetings—something it cannot do now—the proposal suggests. That would allow the ABA to be more nimble when problems arise, it says.

The ABA could also expand the reaccreditation cycle from seven to 10 years, which would reduce costs and save time, according to the proposal. ABA staff members could take on additional responsibilities for issuing recommendations and enforcing compliance with data reporting requirements.

“One body, with deep knowledge of both standards and how they are working will lead to better standards and better school review processes,” the proposal reads.

Even if the council gives its blessing to a reorganization later this week, no changes are imminent. A preliminary schedule calls for a fleshed out proposal to be completed by November. The earliest the proposal could go before the ABA’s House of Delegates is August 2018.