ABA makes bar passage requirement tougher

For 20 law schools, the recent ABA decision to toughen bar passage requirements could jeopardize their accreditation status if they don’t somehow make improvements to their pass rates. 

That’s because they’re currently below the new standard, which requires schools to have at least a 75-percent passage rate for students within two years of graduation, instead of the five-year window they get now.

Historically, schools have been able to improve bar passage in two ways: Strengthen bar prep and/or toughen admissions standards.

The clock is ticking. The new standard went into place immediately and comes at a time when bar passage in general has become more difficult in a number of states.

In the most recent ABA’s ultimate bar passage rates for the Class of 2016 — which measures bar passage over a two-year period — 23 schools fell under that key 75 percent mark. Three of those schools — Arizona Summit, Whittier and Valparaiso — are closing.

A handful of other schools don’t have much breathing room. They are below 77 percent.

Some of the schools falling below are falling considerably below. Take Atlanta's John Marshall. It's ultimate bar passage rate is under 60 percent. Less than 40 percent of its first-time test takers passed the 2018 bar, ABA records show. Earlier, the ABA placed the school on probation, saying it was failing to take students who appear capable of finishing law school and passing the bar. 

The idea of toughening the accreditation policy has been around for a time. Twice earlier — after hearing concerns that a change could threaten schools with greater numbers of minority students — the ABA’s House of Delegates declined to make the change, though.

This time, it was ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar that was considering the action. At its May meeting, held on the 17th, the 21-member body voted to do so.

“These revisions provide more straightforward and clear expectations for law schools and establish measures and process that are more appropriate for today’s environment,” Barry Currier, managing director of ABA law school accreditation, said in a statement.

“Most students go to law school to become lawyers. Becoming a lawyer requires passing the bar exam. How well a school’s graduates perform on the bar exam is a very important accreditation tool to assess the school’s program of legal education.”

But schools that are lagging behind the 75 percent rate feel their mission to create more diversity in the profession will be threatened.

“The revised standard will have the greatest impact on schools with the mission of admitting students with lower predictors of success, often students from under-served communities,” the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) wrote in a letter to the ABA House of Delegates in January.

SALT noted that, at times, better performing students transfer to higher-ranked schools, putting even more pressure on these law schools to meet the 75 percent mark.

“Such schools may thus be forced to shrink or eliminate the pipeline to success they have offered to students from underserved communities,” it warned.

SALT's reaction to the vote was anything but tepid: "SALT is disappointed that once again the ABA Council on Legal Education has chosen to ignore the many entities, including the ABA House of Delegates, that have strongly objected to its simplistic new bar passage rule. Council members have promised that their new Standard 316 will not hurt diversity of the profession. SALT and others are highly skeptical of this claim, but we stand ready to hold the Council to its promise."

It also noted how California schools will face added pressure, given how tough that state bar examination is. The vote "adds new pressure on the California Supreme Court to adopt a more mainstream and less discriminatory bar exam passing score."

However, the argument for toughening the standard was to make law schools do what they should do, which is prepare students to become working lawyers. If they are taking suspect students, that practice will have to be halted.

And students won’t be walking of out of law school deep in debt and unable to practice law, advocates for the change said.

Law schools, if they fail to make the 75 percent mark, will have two years to do so, according to the rule change.

The following schools are below the threshold, according to the ABA’s ultimate bar passage rate for the Class of 2016. They are on thin ice.

 

Arizona Summit Law School: 50 percent

Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico: 54.47 percent

Inter American University of Puerto Rico: 57.22 percent

Whittier Law School: 57.26 percent

Atlanta’s John Marshall: 59.76 percent 

Thomas Jefferson School of Law: 63.83 percent

Florida Coastal School of Law: 64.54 percent

Valparaiso University: 65.99 percent

Elon University: 66.27 percent

University of San Francisco: 67.44 percent

University of South Dakota: 67.92 percent

University of Dayton: 69.23 percent

Appalachian School of Law: 69.77 percent

University of Puerto Rico: 69.88 percent

Western Michigan University: 69.02 percent

New England Law I Boston: 71.13 percent

Barry University: 71.14 percent

District of Columbia: 71.43 percent

Ave Maria School of Law: 73.33 percent

McGeorge School of Law: 73.48 percent

Golden Gate University: 74 percent

Vermont Law School: 74.34 percent

University of La Verne: 74.47 percent