Despite Pandemic, Bar Exam Results Climb Up


The bar exam and the pandemic? For law school grads, it was like taking on two brutes at once.

If a jurisdiction managed to hold the July exam in person, test-takers had to wear masks and sit 6 feet apart. Sure, not a distraction … Many states didn’t play that game. They postponed the test and held it online. Some graduates had to wait until October to take it. Some had to start and then restart prep. A good number had to postpone taking or seeking jobs.

And yet …

The 2020 bar exam passage rate eclipsed that of 2019, according to recent figures from the ABA. First-time takers passed at a near 83% rate, up 3 percentage points from the previous year.

New York bar exam results for first time testers passed the online test at a 85% clip, 9 percentage points better than the July 2019 first-time testers. Over all, 84% passed, compared to the 65% who passed the year before.

In California bar exam results, nearly 61% passed the October online test, compared to the 50% who passed the in-person test the year before. That state lowered its cut score slightly because of the pandemic and the uncertainty it was causing.

Some states offered diploma privilege, meaning graduates did not have to take the bar exam. When they were factored into the pass rate, it went up slightly to 83.66%.

A number of schools continue to rock the bar, surpassing more well-known institutions. Belmont University College of Law in Nashville notched a 93.59% pass rate, which bettered law schools such as Notre Dame Law School (91.97%) and Georgetown University Law Center (90.22%).

And there was more good news about the bar. The ABA also recently released the ultimate bar passage data for the Class of 2018, which also saw improvement.

That’s the percentage of students from a class who pass the bar within two years of graduation. It’s a key and relatively new measurement. If a school falls below 75%, it can lose accreditation under ABA Standard 316. That change came with much controversy because a number of the schools susceptible to it enrolled sizeable minority student bodies and were considered key to helping to diverse the legal profession.

For the Class of 2018, the ultimate bar passage rate was at nearly 90%. That’s up from 89.47% for the Class of 2017. Three schools got 100%. They were Belmont University (mentioned above), the University of Chicago and University of Washington School of Law in Seattle.

Ten schools were below the all-important 75% mark. They are:


Charleston School of Law


Mississippi College


Dayton University


Barry University


Western New England


University of San Francisco


Western Michigan – Cooley


Golden Gate Law School


Inter American*


Pontifical Catholic*



* Located in Puerto Rico


The ABA began using the new standard for the Class of 2017, and 10 schools were notified in May 2020 that they were not making it. Since then, six schools improved their bar passage rates and made the cut.

Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School are the only two U.S.-based schools that were notified initially and are still below 75%, according to the most recent data. The two Puerto Rico-based schools were also notified and remain beneath the goal number too.

Most law schools had no problem surpassing the bar exam standard.

  • More than 100 schools had an ultimate bar passage rate that exceeded 90%.
  • Fifty-one schools were above 95%.

The ABA cautioned that this data does not mean the 10 schools are failing to comply with Standard 316. The three schools at the top of the above list are just below the threshold, for instance.

“As noted in previous years, this report is not a compliance report for ABA Standard 316, which establishes bar exam outcomes that a law school must achieve under the accreditation standards and is a separate and distinct matter,” said Bill Adams, managing director for ABA accreditation and legal education. “These reports over the years have provided important consumer information for students considering whether and where to attend law school and for others with an interest in legal education.”

If they are found not to be in compliance then they have two years to comply, Adams said.

It’s possible that the pandemic could have affected the Class of 2017 — at least in a marginal way. December graduates would have had four shots at passing the bar, the last being the July 2020 bar. That’s the one that got hit by the pandemic.

The ABA is taking the pandemic into consideration when it comes to that 75% mark moving forward as well. However, an earlier ABA memorandum said the new standard would not be suspended.ertimi“A Law School that believes certain circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic have negatively impacted opportunities for its graduates to sit for the bar exam or its compliance with Standard 316’s two-year bar passage rate will be permitted to share specific information with the Council for the Council’s consideration in determining compliance.

 <a href="">Man photo created by KamranAydinov -</a>