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Summary: It’s no secret that bar passage rates have fallen across the country.
It’s no secret that bar passage rates have fallen across the country. According to the ABA Journal, February 2017’s exam fell by another point, from 135 to 134.1, and this rate is the lowest since 1972. Leading up to the drop, rates were already on the decline, and Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), said that the reason for this could be because of law school admissions. While careful to not blame law schools for lowering standards, she said that we’re seeing “different enrollment patterns,” which include admitting students with test scores that were lower than in the past. Some law schools have spun this change as an increase in diversity; and to help students with low LSAT scores, some schools have aggressively worked to help these individuals pass classes and the bar exam.
But obviously, not all law schools have been successful in helping their graduates pass the bar, and these schools have been met with backlash from students and punishment from the American Bar Association (ABA), which offers accreditation. In the summer of 2017, Charlotte School of Law, a law school with a notoriously law bar passage rate, was shut down by its state; and it and others like it provide some insight into the low bar passage rate debate.
What Happened to Charlotte Law School?
In August of 2017, the North Carolina Attorney General gave Charlotte School of Law an ominous ultimatum—close or be closed. Attorney General Josh Stein told The Charlotte Observer that the for-profit law school was no longer licensed to operate in the state, and his office had informed Charlotte Law that if it didn’t shutter then legal action would be taken. This threat came shortly after the ABA had denied Charlotte Law’s requested proposal to allow its remaining students to finish their law degrees and after it had become the first accredited U.S. law school ever to be thrown out of the federal student loan program.
Charlotte Law was run by InfiLaw Systems, a for-profit consortium owned by a private equity firm that owns other poor performing law schools. The school was open for only 11 years; and during its final days, the law school was hit by almost 150 lawsuits from students alleging fraud, along with wrongful termination lawsuits from ousted faculty. Even though the school had a poor bar passage rate (on the July 2016 test only 45.2% of graduates passed), the school cost graduates almost $160,000.
Before its closing, the Dean of Charlotte Law blamed the school’s students for their poor bar passage rates. In a shocking email sent to students in 2015, Dean Jay Conison blasted the school’s terrible performance, saying it was the laziness of the students that was to blame.
“We are…disappointed in the overall pass rate for Charlotte graduates. Our first-time takers passed at a rate of 47.1%, as compared to a state rate of 67.1%. Repeat takers passed at a rate of 23.7%, as compared to the overall rate of 24.3%,” Dean Conison said. “I’m sorry so many did not pass but literally everyone I know that did the work passed. I am tired of being the laughing stock. Your decisions affect others and the reputation that you build for our school hurts the current and former graduates. I don’t want to dump on those that failed. I just want our school to get a good reputation.”
Who Is to Blame for Low Passage Rates: Law Schools or Law School Students?
Charlotte Law’s dean may have been harsh with his assessment, but he was not the only educational head to seemingly blame his students. In 2015, the Benjamin Cardoza School of Law of Yeshiva University experienced a sharp decline in its pass rate, and the school pinpointed that the students admitted with low undergraduate GPAs dragged the results down. To address this, the school offered a remedial bar exam preparation course that partnered with Kaplan Test Prep. In 2016, Hofstra Law School also saw a steep drop in its bar passage rate by 20% from 2013 to 2016, and it sent out an email to students that whoever had a low law school GPA should reach out to academic success advisors for help. Like Cardoza, Hofstra had also lowered its admission standards.
NCBE’s Erica Moeser said that there has been a decline in LSAT scores in the bottom quarter of admitted students; and in fact, only one school since 2010 has seen an increase in LSAT scores in that quarter. The year 2010 was the peak for law school enrollment, according to Forbes. During that year, law schools had almost 38,000 students. From 2013 to 2014, the number dropped by 9,000.
Prestige schools like Harvard and Yale have no problem attracting students or maintaining a healthy bar passage rate, but the lower-tier schools dealt with the decrease in quality students’ interest by allowing almost anyone who wanted a J.D. degree to get one. This is what happened to Charlotte Law School, and this became a problem for both law students and schools. Law students ended up with debt and no law license, and law schools ended up with bad statistics and poor reputations.
“In the face of a nationwide application slump, many law schools have admitted students with ever-lower LSAT scores – of all races and ethnicities – to prop up tuition revenue. They now seek to avoid accountability for the resulting poor bar passage results,” Dean Craig Boise of Syracuse and Dean Andrew Morriss of Texas A&M told Forbes.
Are Lowered Admission Standards a Good Thing?
The ABA sanctioned another InfiLaw school, Arizona Summit Law School, in 2016 for its admission policies and poor pass rates. The president of the university, Donald Lively, said that the school wanted to be compliant with the ABA’s standards while still preserving its mission of diversity.
“The legal profession is the least diverse white-collar profession,” Lively told Slate. “A law school has a choice. It can pursue rankings, which a lot choose to do, but if you’re going to make that your priority, you abandon or dismiss the opportunity to make a contribution to diversify the profession.”
NCBE’s Moeser had a similar point of view to Lively. She said that when schools changed their standards they were opening up the applicant pools; and this push for diversity, not just for race but for diverse backgrounds, has been on prestige schools’ agendas as well. For instance, Harvard, Northwestern, and several other universities have begun accepting the GRE test, but it is noted that they have not lowered their other criteria such as GPAs or LSAT scores.
Kyle McEntee, the executive director of Law School Transparency (LST), a law school watchdog group, said that schools like Arizona Summit are using diversity as a shield and actually setting less-qualified students up to fail. According to LST, Arizona Summit admitted students with LSAT scores as low as the 130s in 2015. The LSAT score is from 120 to 180.
“It makes what they’re doing even worse, and using diversity as a shield is very troubling,” McEntee said. “If they were really concerned about diversifying the profession, the schools would be more affordable.”
Law Schools with the Most Unemployed Graduates
Now for some good news. In 2016, a large percentage of law school graduates who passed the bar were able to get jobs, proving that there is still work for licensed attorneys. Unfortunately, students who graduated from certain lower-tier schools and who did not pass the bar were left jobless with loads of debt.
Law.com released a list of the top schools with the most unemployed graduates in 2017, and surprise, surprise, now-closed law school Charlotte Law was first in the class. The year before, it had placed tenth.
Law Schools with the Most Unemployed Graduates – 2017
Charlotte Law: 30.88 percent
Southwestern Law: 28.97 percent
Thomas Jefferson Law: 28.57 percent
Florida Coastal Law: 27.76 percent
Valparaiso Law: 24.38 percent
U. San Diego Law: 24.31 percent
Elon Law: 23.60 percent
LaVerne Law: 23.53 percent
Chapman Law: 23.42 percent
U. Pacific McGeorge Law: 22.86 percent
Southwestern Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and Florida Coastal Law School made the 2017 list as well as the year before. Like Charlotte Law, Thomas Jefferson was famously sued by students for allegedly misleading them about graduate success rates.
What Can Be Done to Fix the Problem of Low Bar Passage Rates?
While there could be other factors contributing to the failing bar passage rates, the loosened law school admissions is one reason that continuously is brought up in discussion. To fix the failure problem, the American Bar Association has been cracking down on schools who accept less academically prepared students, but what other solutions are there?
Increase Law School Standards
In February 2017, almost 600 members convened at the American Bar Association House of Delegates and they voted on whether or not to require accredited law schools to have 75% of graduates pass the bar exam within two years of graduating. The initiative was rejected because there was a fear that it could harm the push for diversity. The current ABA bar passage rate is 75% of graduates must pass in five years from graduation.
“As critics of the new standards point out, the new standards would cause some low-performing schools to close. But if a school cannot survive without exploiting a large number of students, it should not survive,” Law School Transparency wrote in an investigative report about LSAT scores and bar passage rates. “For the students who would have attended these schools and had a reasonable chance at passing the bar, they will find another law school to attend. For the others, they will be better served by not attending law school.”
At that same meeting, the ABA’s House of Delegates approved a revision to Standard 501, which would require all schools to “adopt, publish and adhere” admission standards and stick to them so that only students with the potential to graduate and pass the bar were admitted. The 75% rule, called 316, will be voted on again in 2018.
“The revisions to Standard 501 are an enormous win that will make it more difficult for law schools to exploit students for tuition,” Law School Transparency’s McEntee said. “While the Standard 316 battle was lost this time, the war is not over. The law schools that do more harm than good will be held accountable for terrible bar passage rates.”
Decrease bar exam cut scores
When it comes to the bar exam pass rates, some argue that it is not the students or law schools to blame for bad numbers, but the test itself needs to be re-examined. Each jurisdiction has varying “cut rates,” and almost half the country uses the Uniform Bar Exam while the other half gives out local tests. Critics of the bar exam said that creates an unfair system—where some states have easier bar exams than others---and one solution to helping more students pass is to lower the cut score.
California is plagued with an awful pass rate and has the second highest cut score in the country. For the February 2017 test, only 34.5% of candidates passed. The problem has become so grave that the California Supreme Court is considering changing the cut score of 144 out of 200 to a more reasonable number.
“The cut score is almost everything,” said Professor Robert Anderson of Pepperdine School of Law. He said the California bar exam was probably the hardest in the country, but “If California changed its minimum score to 133, which is the same as New York’s, then I would say, California’s is easy,”
Proponents for keeping high cut scores say that it is needed to protect the public from unqualified attorneys.
While it is no contest that low bar passage rates are a problem, the debate on how to fix them is still ongoing. While poor performing law schools like Charlotte Law may blame its students, others in the legal world think the schools should be held accountable as to whom they take tuition from. But until a solution is met, potential students should carefully consider their school choice and whether or not it is a wise investment in their future.
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