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Law Schools Are Interested In Whether You Pass The Bar

  • by Philip Mayer
  • Nov 14, 2016
  • Law School


Last year, bar exam passage-rates fell to a near all-time low, leading some to question whether bar exam administration is a problem or whether schools are failing to do enough to prepare their students. Both states and schools are trying to respond to the issue by making changes. For example, New York just opted to join the ranks of states adopting the Uniform Bar Exam. Some schools, for their part, are making certain bar courses mandatory. I don’t think of these changes will magically restore plummeting passage-rates—the problem lies elsewhere.

Now, before I go any further, I have not yet taken the bar exam. I am going to undertake that harrowing journey shortly after graduating this spring. I cannot speak personally to the process, but I have spoken to many new lawyers about their experience, and I have kept track of the bar exam situation over the last few years, including the downturn in passages rates (and the subsequent panic attacks it has induced).

I think the culprit for the decline are the schools, but I don’t think they can solve the problem by rethinking their curriculum. Rather, schools need to either maintain their admission standards in the face of declining admissions or close down altogether. During the recession not too long ago, a large number of new law school graduates couldn’t get jobs. This, in turn, led to a decline in applicants to law schools. Law schools responded by lowering admission rates. As a result, a large number of under-qualified students ended up receiving offers of admission. It really should come as no surprise that those students struggled with the bar exam. I often tell students that LSAT scores are not indicative of performance in law school, but they do correlate with bar passage rates.

If I tried to get a CPA, taking preparatory classes would only do so much for me because I am pretty terrible at math. Consequently, I have a hard time accepting that a change in curriculum will lead to better results. The students at many lower ranked schools—those who got in on the strength of a well-below median LSAT score—are, generally speaking, probably doing themselves a disservice by going to law school. Making bar courses mandatory might improve things a little bit, but it is still often going to be like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Law schools had no business lowering their admission standards—I, and others, place the blame squarely on their shoulders.

Now, flipping to the bar examination itself, there are changes taking place in test administration. As I mentioned earlier, New York decided to join 24 other states in adopting the Uniform Bar Exam. Basically, the UBE is a standardized bar examination that is portable across state lines—if you pass it in one jurisdiction, you can use your score to become barred in another UBE state. I think the UBE is great, and I am all for the increased portability. But I don’t think this makes the situation easier on students. The bar exam is still an incredibly difficult exam, regardless of whether it is administered in a more standardized way. The results from new UBE states support this position.

At some point, schools are going to have to stop blaming the bar exam, the students, or the course offerings for their low passage rates. It is their own fault for seeking profits by allowing in students who are statistically more likely to underperform on the bar. It should come as no surprise that the top law schools have passage rates well above ninety percent. Those schools did not lower admission standards, and they have seen no downturn in results. These schools haven’t implemented mandatory bar courses, and their students take the bar in UBE and non-UBE jurisdictions. For the lower ranked law schools, they need to start with the man in the mirror.

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