Law schools may face tougher sanctions if too many grads fail bar exam

Jan 27, 2019 by

With tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, some law school grads are unable to pass the bar to become lawyers. Are their law schools to blame?

Image result for Thurgood Marshall School of Law photos

In 2018, the ABA lifted the curtain on the performance of its roughly 200 accredited schools, publishing for the first time the bar-pass rates for their 2015 classes during the two years after graduation.

Western Michigan University Cooley Law School was among the lower-performing schools, with a 70% passage rate during that period.

The private, Lansing-based school is one of the least selective law schools in the country.

Jeffrey Martlew, Cooley’s interim president, said the school gives students who might be rejected by other law schools the opportunity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become successful lawyers.

Cooley became the largest law school in the country during the boom for legal education from 2000 to 2010, enrolling nearly 4,000 students at its peak. Amid a decline in law school enrollment since 2010, Cooley became more lenient. In its most recently admitted class, the bottom 25% of students had an average LSAT score of 139, down from 143 a few years earlier.

Martlew acknowledged that a score of 139 is too low for admission. In short order, he said, he plans to improve the academic profile of its students and boost graduates’ bar-passage rates. Under his plan, students who enroll through the standard admission process would need an LSAT score of at least 145.

Martlew, a former judge, opposes the ABA’s proposed bar-pass standard. He called it a “radical departure” that, if adopted at all, should be phased in, so schools can adjust.

More importantly, he said, the standard would force law schools to turn away lower-profile students, among them many minority students, a move that would probably make the nation’s law schools less diverse.

“We don’t want to slam the door on our access mission,” he said, “which is really what makes us different than any other law school.”

No ‘one-size-fits-all rule’

Others share Martlew’s concern about the proposed requirement’s impact on law school diversity.

Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the Howard University School of Law in Washington, called the proposal a “one-size-fits-all rule” that would punish schools whose mission is to educate students from marginalized communities.

A historically black school that opened four years after the Civil War, Howard had a 73% passage rate on the bar exam after two years. That’s slightly below the proposed 75% requirement.

Kimberly Delk Eason, attorney general for the National Black Law Student Association, said that instead of penalizing schools with lower scores, the ABA should require them to provide more student services, such as bar-preparation courses for third-year students.

Some schools already do this, but the ABA doesn’t require it.

ABA officials said there is no evidence that law schools would use a bar-pass standard as a basis for decreasing diversity; the ABA requires schools to commit to diversity, the organization said.

McEntee of Law School Transparency doesn’t put much weight on the argument that the change would shut down law schools that enroll large numbers of minorities. If a school has low bar-pass rates, it’s doing more harm than good, he said.

“People who don’t get through school and don’t pass the bar exam are not diversifying our profession,” he said.

‘Absolutely grueling’

Some schools have used more selective admissions to raise bar scores.

At the University of South Dakota School of Law, the state’s only law school, bar-pass rates began falling in 2014. By 2017, 46% of first-time takers were passing.

The drop coincided with a decision to admit students with lower LSAT scores and grade-point averages, as the school tried to maintain enrollment amid declining applications. The LSAT is considered the best predictor before law school of whether a student will pass the bar exam.

Many of the nation’s least selective law schools used a similar strategy to fill their classes after 2010 as law firms downsized during the Great Recession and law school enrollment plummeted.

The number of law schools admitting at least 25% of students considered “at risk” of failing the bar jumped from 30 schools to 74 schools from 2010 to 2014, according to a report in 2015 by Law School Transparency.

South Dakota lawmakers, alarmed by the sudden decline in graduates’ bar scores, demanded more oversight. The Legislature found more funding, which the school used to reduce the size of the incoming class by 40% and to be more selective in admissions. The school began offering a bar-prep class.

In July, 82% of first-time test takers passed the state bar exam.

“Has it been grueling? Absolutely grueling,” Dean Thomas Geu said. “It’s been a magnificent challenge.”

ABA is ‘out of step’

The decline in law school graduates’ performance has drawn the attention of federal regulators.

continued: Law schools may face tougher sanctions if too many grads fail bar exam

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.