Accredited vs. Unaccredited Law Schools: What's the Difference?

When shopping around for law schools one important aspect worth noting is the school's status as an accredited or unaccredited law school. An accredited law school is a school whose program has received American Bar Association (ABA) approval. The process for receiving ABA accreditation takes several years, so new schools may not yet have completed the process. Here is an overview of accredited and unaccredited law schools, including the main differences between the two.

Is Accreditation Required?

The majority of states require the completion of an accredited law school in order to take the bar and practice law. California, Vermont, Virginia, Washington do not have this requirement, however, and in these jurisdictions attending an unaccredited school is no impediment to practicing law, though states 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. The California Bar Association (CBA), for example, has accredited a number of California schools that lack ABA accreditation. However, California permits an applicant for the bar regardless of whether they attended law school at all.

What are the Risks to Attending an Unaccredited Law School?

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

These statistics should be cause for concern for any intended student. There are many other criticisms of unaccredited law schools. Problems with these programs include the possibility of:

  • lower geographic mobility;
  • lower starting salaries;
  • employer disfavor;
  • less prestige;
  • fewer facilities;
  • lower oversight and regulation; and
  • lower completion and bar passage rates.

Of course, your individual needs may mean that these concerns aren't applicable to your particular situation. 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 at least a few people, attendance remains a wise decision. Advocates for unaccredited programs say that they provide opportunities for students that 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. Future attorneys who have studied at an unaccredited law school typically point to three major benefits, namely:

  • flexible schedules;
  • lower admission standards; and
  • lower fees.

Lower fees, 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 grades and LSAT were not impressive enough to secure admission to an accredited law school.

What Next?

Whether you want to attend an accredited 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.