Ask the Professor: Who’s to Blame for the Falling Bar Exam Pass Rates?

Early results show the bar exam passage rate has dropped again in many states. Law schools are blaming the students, but who is really at fault?  Have the law schools let their students down and are now blaming them?

The average score on the MBE portion of the July 2015 test fell 1.6 points from 2014, reaching its lowest level since 1988. The mean score on this past summer’s exam was 139.9, down from 141.5 in July 2014.

“It was not unexpected,” says Erica Moeser, the President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, when addressing the lower pass rates. “We are in a period where we can expect to see some decline, until the market for going to law school improves.” Law schools have been admitting students with lower qualifications who “may encounter difficulty” when taking the bar, Moeser states.

If law schools are admitting less qualified students to fill seats and then blaming them for failing the bar, who let whom down?

Bar courses alone cannot improve a student’s chance of passing the bar relative to their class standing. Students will pass in GPA order, but we also have to factor in the quality of the students themselves. If law schools are admitting less qualified students, not only will they pass in GPA order but fewer will pass.

In an article appearing in Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, stated “The decline in student quality continues to affect the results. As fewer people apply to law schools, the programs have started filling their campuses with students who are not as qualified as they used to be”.

Jay Conison, Dean of Charlotte School of Law that had a 47.1%, pass rate, as compared to the state rate of 67.1%, blames both the students and bar courses. In an email to the student body, he writes: “a number of our July bar takers (including some who had performed well in law school) did not do the work.” He called them lazy and put some of the blame on bar courses, “some graduates took a bar preparation course offered by … (Themis), …, and their pass rate was very low (preliminary data reflects that it was only 15.4%)”.

When the term “less qualified” is used, it means less qualified in certain basic aptitudes and skills. It does not mean less intelligent or that these students will not make good lawyers. But it does mean the law schools knew these students would have difficulty passing the bar exam when they admitted them. Could they have done more and not pass the blame?

To build the skill set you need to succeed on the bar exam you should consider taking an MBE or essay supplemental course along with your bar course, or consider adding tutoring.

If you are taking the February 2016 bar exam (especially if you failed the July 2015 and are retaking it) the fact is that you will face low pass rates. Don’t let the law schools’ failures become yours. Work hard and study smart.