Florida Coastal, Atlanta's John Marshall receive warnings from the ABA about bar exam performance

  • Florida Coastal School of Law

The American Bar Association has warned two more law schools that they are “significantly out of compliance” with accreditation requirements, primarily related to poor bar exam performance. That brings the total number of schools with current warnings to five, and several more schools could receive warnings in the next year or so. 

Florida Coastal School of Law and Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School were the latest schools to receive warning letters from Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of Accreditation and Legal Education.

In its response, Florida Coastal pointed out that its incoming credentials are better than 23 other law schools. 

"[W]e do not believe we are out of compliance at the present," the school stated in a letter to the local newspaper. "The ABA’s decision was based on historical data and likely influenced by our recent bar passage results. It was also made before the ABA could have seen the 90 percent improvement in our Florida first-time bar pass results from February to July."

The ABA has issued more warnings in the past year than any other year on record in response to declining bar passage rates and an ABA rule that was passed in 2008.

Pushed by the Bush administration, the ABA passed Standard 301(6) in 2008 to provide more accountability by requiring all law schools to meet one of the following two benchmarks: (1) Over a five-year period, 75 percent of the graduates who sit for the bar must pass; or (2) The school’s first-time annual bar passage rate is no more than 15 percent less than the average first-time rate for graduates of ABA-approved law schools in the same jurisdiction.

At the time it was passed, critics felt Standard 301(6) would be “a tsunami to the African American community.” Some argued it would result in the closure of three to five law schools, all with large minority enrollments. But for the first six years, that did not come to pass, as some schools simply admitted fewer minorities and applications overall continued to climb. 

Then in 2011, the number of applicants dropped by 10.7 percent, followed by another 13.5 percent drop in 2012, and yet another 12.4 percent drop in 2013. To maintain enrollment, many law schools were forced to accept students with lower LSAT scores, leading to a drop in national bar passage rates.  The Class of 2014 reported a 74 percent pass rate, four percentage points down from the previous year. The bar pass rate for the Class of 2015 dropped to 70 percent and then continued to decline to 69 percent for the Class of 2016. 

Both Florida Coastal and Atlanta’s John Marshall were found to be in violation of Standard 301(6) and also Standard 309(b), which addresses academic support to give students a reasonable opportunity to complete their studies and become lawyers, and Standard 501, which directs law schools to have sound admissions practices and only admit students who appear capable of graduating law school and passing the bar exam.

“I have to say that I was disappointed to receive a letter saying we are out of compliance with some of the Standards,” Florida Coastal Dean Scott DeVito wrote in a statement submitted to Above the Law. “While our outcomes are certainly not where we want them to be, I believe we are in compliance with the Standards and we are in the middle of drafting a response to the ABA due November 8.”

DeVito wrote that he suspected the ABA’s primary concern was the law school’s recent bar passage rates. Only 47.7 percent of Florida Coastal graduates passed the July 2017 Florida exam, which is down a few percentage points from the previous year. Florida Coastal’s February 2017 pass rate was 25 percent for first-time test-takers, far below the state average of 57.7.

In the past year, the law school has made efforts to increase its admissions profile, raising the bottom quartile of its LSAT scores from 141 in 2015 to 145 in 2017.

According to DeVito, Florida Coastal will remain in compliance on the bar until the “effects of increased incoming credentials begin to bear fruit.” The law school’s goal is to achieve a 75 percent first-time bar pass rate.

Florida Coastal is one of three for-profit law schools owned by InfiLaw. The ABA placed another InfiLaw school, Charlotte School of Law, on probation last year. Charlotte law was forced to close its doors in August 2017 after the North Carolina Board of Governors denied the school’s request to renew its operating license.

The third InfiLaw school, Arizona Summit School of Law, is on probation for noncompliance with ABA admissions and academic standards.  Only nine of Arizona Summit’s 2017 graduates who took the Arizona Bar Exam passed the test. The school’s total pass rate for the July 2017 exam was 20.1 percent.

Students at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law have also struggled with the bar exam. Only 51.7 percent of the law school’s first-time test takers passed the July 2017 Georgia Bar Exam, just shy of the required 15 percent variance from the state average, which was 66.9 percent.

“These letters reflect the fact that these schools are doing more harm than good,” Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency wrote in an email. “Prospective and current students should be wary about borrowing to attend a law school that sets so many students up to fail. They need to examine their career goals and whether the school will actually help them achieve them. This includes projecting your debt to earn the degree and carefully looking at the attrition, bar passage, and employment rates. Always ask the question: at what cost?”

In May 2017, two other law schools — Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Appalachian School of Law — received similar warning letters regarding admissions practices and academic programming.

In addition to Standards 301(a), 309(b) and 501(a) and (b), Thomas Jefferson is also out of compliance with standards 202(a) and (d), which requires that the law school have sufficient anticipated financial resources to operate in compliance with ABA standards and to carry out the law school’s legal education programming.

According to Thomas Jefferson’s 2016 509 report, the bottom quartile LSAT was 141. Just 46 percent of first-time test takers passed the California State Bar Exam in 2015.

Appalachian Law also finds itself out of compliance of Standards 301(a), 501(a) and (b) and 502(d). The lowest quartile had an LSAT score of 140 and GPA of 2.6. The average school pass rate, which accounts for bar takers in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, was 58 percent in 2015.

Florida Coastal was required to submit a progress report by November 1, and Atlanta’s John Marshall by February 1. Based on the written information, the Accreditation Committee could find the law schools in compliance. Otherwise, a hearing will be held at the Committee’s March 2018 meeting.

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