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

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American Bar Association in Washington, D.C. May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Critics had warned the measure would violate schools' curricular autonomy, but it passed without opposition Monday
  • The change comes at the request of 150 law deans

(Reuters) - The American Bar Association will require law schools to educate students about bias, racism and cross-cultural competency, possibly as soon as the next academic year.

The ABA’s House of Delegates on Monday approved changes to its law school accreditation standards, including a mandate that law schools provide bias training when students began their legal studies and at least once more before they graduate. No one spoke in opposition to the changes and they were overwhelmingly adopted by the ABA policymaking body.

In June of 2020, 150 law deans signed a letter urging the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar — which oversees the law school accreditation standards — to consider such a requirement as part of a wider anti-racism movement in legal education.

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Such widespread support among deans on any issue is unusual, said National Conference of Bar Examiners trustee Hulett “Bucky” Askew in his comments to the House of Delegates.

“I hope you recognize how remarkable it is that 75% of the deans of the law schools in America asked for this standard,” he said. “The deans’ expression of support represents the depth and breadth of concern on this issue.”

But critics expressed concerns in written comments last year, warning that the bias training mandate would interfere with the freedom schools have to develop their own curriculum or would impose a particular ideology on students.

Antonio García-Padilla, former dean of the University of Puerto Rico School of Law and the ABA Section of Legal Education’s representative to the House of Delegates, told members Monday that the standard doesn’t spell out how law schools should provide bias training. But it provides examples, he said.

Under the new standard, the bias training requirement may be fulfilled during orientation, guest lectures, courses on racism and bias in the law, and other “educational experiences.” Students would have to complete both trainings before starting clinics or field placements.

The House of Delegates also approved the addition of ethnicity, gender identity and military status to the accreditation standard prohibiting discrimination, as well as requirements that schools provide information about student well-being resources and student loan repayment.

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Reporting by Karen Sloan

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com