Conservatives question ABA role in law school diversity push

American Bar Association offices in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • A Federalist Society panel raised questions about the ABA’s oversight of law schools
  • Some said the ABA has gone too far in requiring bias training and diversity and inclusion mandates

(Reuters) – Recent moves by the American Bar Association to require bias training for law students and beef up law school diversity and inclusion rules have disturbed some conservative lawyers who say the accrediting body has overstepped its role and is imposing a specific ideology on future lawyers.

“In my view, the ABA has stepped out of its lane,” Cornell Law professor and conservative legal blogger William Jacobson said at a Tuesday panel discussion on the ABA’s law school oversight. The panel was part of the Federalist Society’s Tenth Annual Executive Branch Review Conference in Washington, D.C.

Jacobson said the ABA should not impose educational mandates in the “hotly contested” arena of diversity and bias, and that the changes represent the further narrowing of acceptable campus discourse.

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The ABA in February adopted a requirement that law schools provide training in bias, racism and cross-cultural competency when students begin their legal studies and at least once more before they graduate. That change came after 150 law deans requested it in June 2020, but it encountered opposition from a broad cross-section of legal academics, some of whom said it encroached on law schools’ autonomy.

The ABA is also in the final stages of adopting a revised diversity and inclusion standard that expands existing rules related to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups among students, faculty and staff, among other inclusivity requirements. Schools would undergo an annual assessment of the inclusivity of their “educational environment” under the proposal.

Officials with the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar—which operates independently from the larger organization—have long maintained that schools have wide latitude in fulfilling the new requirements.

Scott Bales, former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and the immediate past chair of the ABA’s Legal Education council, told Federalist Society attendees that the proposed changes to the diversity and inclusion standards don’t include any quotas and won’t require “racial balancing.”

“To my mind, it’s not a radical proposal, although it’s not surprising in the current context that it has excited a lot of controversy,” Bales said during the panel, adding that the changes aim to ensure new lawyers have the competencies required to be successful in practice.

A spokesman for the ABA’s Section of Legal Education said Thursday that Bales’ comments reflect the group’s position on the issue.

Panel moderator Trevor McFadden, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said the bias and diversity and inclusion measures have led to larger questions about the ABA’s involvement with law schools.

“These developments have naturally raised interest in the uniquely powerful role the ABA plays in the American legal profession,” he said.

Read more:

U.S. law students to receive anti-bias training after ABA passes new rule

ABA revises diversity policy for lawyer education programs after setback

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