Lincoln Memorial gets provisional ABA accreditation

Lincoln Memorial University John J. Duncan, Jr. School of Law completed its remarkable turnaround, obtaining provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association on Dec. 6.

The small Knoxville, Tennessee, school enrolled its first class in fall 2009, but quickly ran into problems. The ABA notified it in October 2011 that it would likely be denied accreditation, in part because its admissions standards were low and getting worse. The ABA said it had not shown that students would have a good chance of graduating, passing the bar exam and landing a job.

Rather than withdraw its application so it could address the ABA’s concerns, it chose to fight. It submitted a combative brief to the ABA and filed a federal lawsuit that claimed the ABA “arbitrarily and capriciously denied” accreditation to the law school in violation of anti-trust laws. It also waged a battle in the media, including a front-page article in The New York Times that did much to further erode the value of law school in the eyes of the public.

The dean at the time, Sydney Beckman, said other law schools were opposed to a new school at a time when applications were dropping, and internal documents showed evaluators were concerned there was not a sufficient job market for the graduates.

One year later the school did an about face. It replaced Beckman as dean,  dropped the lawsuit against the ABA and announced it would resubmit its application to the ABA.

It later hired Parham Williams as interim dean and vice president. Williams had been the founding dean at Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law and dean at University of Mississippi School of Law and Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.

Then in 2013, the school reported that its inaugural graduating class achieved an 81 percent passage rate on the Tennessee State Bar Exam — higher than the national average of 78 percent. It was the same group of students the ABA had been worried would not pass the bar exam. The ABA had expressed concern that Lincoln Memorial did not have a system in place to ensure that students who received low scores on their LSATs would be able to graduate and pass the bar exam.

Williams said at the time that the denial of provisional ABA approval forced the school to set a new direction. It implemented a series of programs to prepare students for the bar exam, as well as the professional workforce.

“What has changed since we first applied for provisional accreditation in 2011 is that we have graduated our first class in May, who then passed the bar exam above the national average in July,” Williams said in 2013. “Really, what’s different now is that there’s an external measurement of how well we are preparing our students for the practice of law.”

The school has continued to report strong bar passage rates. Since the inaugural class graduated in May 2013, 91 percent of graduates have passed the Tennessee Bar Exam. On the most recent administration of the bar, its grads posted a 77.14% pass rate for first-time takers — five percentage points higher than the average for all first-time takers from all schools nationally.

“The adversity encountered in seeking accreditation has made the institution stronger, our program of legal education better and our administration wiser,” Williams said.

Provisional approval entitles Lincoln Memorial to all the rights of a fully approved law school, and enables its graduates to take the bar exam in any American jurisdiction. To gain full approval, it has five years to demonstrate it is in full compliance with all the ABA Standards of Approval of Law Schools.


“For an institution with over a century of rich history, there are few achievements that surpass this milestone for Lincoln Memorial University,” said LMU President B. James Dawson in a statement. “I commend Dean Parham Williams, his administration at LMU-DSOL, Vice President for Academic Affairs Clayton Hess and the many other university officials who worked tirelessly toward this goal. All of our pursuits are focused on our students and I’m happy to be able to celebrate with them today.”