Are Law Schools Really Lowering their Admission Standards?

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Yes, they are, and it is directly affecting bar pass rates in most of the states. The result is that currently, enrolled students should seriously consider remedial coursework while in law school, and graduates should enroll in a bar preparation review course aimed at getting today’s student prepared for the bar exam.

As law schools across the country try to keep their classrooms full, many are admitting students with lesser qualifications, including those with a lower admissions test score - considered an important predictor of whether a graduate will earn the credentials to practice law.

For the last five years, almost half of the accredited law schools had entering classes with more than a quarter of the class consisting of “at risk” students. According to the Law School Transparency, a nonprofit advocacy organization, an “at risk“ student is one with law school admissions test (LSAT) scores of below 150.

Law school admissions scores closely mirror the final results of the state bar exams, which graduates must pass to qualify as licensed lawyers. Many in legal education consider a score of 150 as a telling dividing line between future success or failure.

“Too many law schools are filling their entering classes with people who face a serious risk of not passing the bar exam,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency.

Most law schools maintain that test scores are only one indicator, albeit an important one, of the ability to pass the bar. They also say they need flexibility in selecting students to assure a diverse population of lawyers.

Many schools are also facing pressure from plummeting enrollments - the lowest in decades. Law school enrollment reached a peak in 2010, as many students fled a troubled economy to the schools’ safe harbor. With a swelling crop of students, bar pass rates increased, but it all began to fall apart, as fast as it started, when jobs in law melted away as the industry adjusted to a changing economy.

Threatening to weaken laws schools’ position further, initial reports from states show that bar passage rates over the last five years continue to slump. The National Conference of Bar Examiners, a Madison, Wisconsin organization that oversees standardized bar exam tests which are given in many states, found that overall results have slipped to the lowest point since 1988.

From the results of their July 2017 bar exam, most states are reporting the numbers continue to become dismal. As a result, California, who has one of the most significant populations taking the exam every year, considered lowering the bar pass cut line to raise the pass rates. The California Supreme Court rejected the proposal.

Also, for example, in Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico the bar passage rates fell by double digits, according to Derek T. Muller, a Pepperdine Law School professor who collects the results.

Law graduates typically can take the test over, and repeaters nudge up the pass rate. But the tumbling outcomes for first-time test takers are spurring debate over whether law schools should be admitting students who score poorly on the LSAT. Scores below 150 are viewed by many as warnings that test takers lack the skills necessary to pass the bar exam.

At least two studies have examined admissions exam scores over a period of eleven years concluded that scores on the LSAT, administered by the Law School Admission Council, closely track later bar passage rates.

Mr. McEntee of Law School Transparency, a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School, said his group’s recent study showed that many schools were admitting students whose lack of legal aptitude made them vulnerable to failing the bar. And, at the same time, they are incurring six-figure student debt that will weigh them down in the future. The steady erosion in admissions scores, Mr. McEntee, said in his study, is “directly linked to the falling bar exam passage rates in many states.”

Rebecca W. Berch, retired chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, who has served on the American Bar Association’s national accrediting body for legal education, said: “I’d like law schools to be up-front, telling students that your indicators say you may not have what it takes to pass the bar.”

Justice Berch said that there had been debate over instituting a “mini bar” to test students after their first year of law school, but noted that it would be difficult and expensive to administer to more than sixty thousand students yearly.

California requires a mini bar, what is known as the “baby bar,” for certain first-year students attending specific categories of unaccredited law schools which only exist in California. However, that applies to a small minority of students which attend law schools in the state. Interestingly though, those students who are required to take the baby bar, attend California schools which do not require a student even to take the LSAT, more-or-less have a minimum LSAT score for admission.

The baby bar in California was instituted many years ago, and from their experience, those who pass the baby bar on their first attempt have a high incidence of passing the full bar exam after graduation. However, those who have to take the baby bar more than once have an extremely low full bar pass rate.

Legal scholars have discussed the high bar pass rate of those who take and pass the baby bar the first time and have generally concluded that the experience of preparing for and taking the baby bar, is excellent preparation for the final bar exam since both exams are very similar with the baby bar simply covering fewer subjects. In this regard, it was noted that almost all first-time baby bar passers took a rigorous baby bar preparation review course and subsequently a full bar preparation review course.

Because those who were required to take the baby bar did not even have an LSAT baseline and those who took the baby bar and passed the first time had high full bar pass rates, some legal scholars have concluded that the true nexus in the bar pass rates has more to do with bar preparation review courses, than the LSAT.

References:

Money Watch. Are Law School Admission Standards Slipping? https://www.cbsnews.com/news/law-schools-are-admitting-students-they-would-have-rejected-years-ago/

Lawyerist. Lower Law-School Admissions Standards Lead to Fewer New CA Lawyers https://lawyerist.com/law-school-snow-job-on-admittees-who-dont-pass-the...

Inside Hired. Lowering the Bar https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/16/law-schools-compete-students-many-may-not-have-admitted-past

Bloomberg. Getting Into Law School Is Easier Than It Used to Be, and That's Not Good https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-01-06/getting-into-law-school-is-easier-than-it-used-to-be-and-thats-not-good

Fortune. Law Schools are Lowering the Bar http://fortune.com/2015/10/27/law-schools-are-lowering-the-bar/

ABA Journal. This law school had a 30% bar pass rate; do lower standards presage troubled times for law grads? http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/thislawschoolhada30barpassrateisitasignofmorewidespreadfail

JD Journal. Many Law Schools Lowering Admissions Requirements https://www.jdjournal.com/2015/01/22/many-law-schools-lowering-admissions-requirements/

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