By Jen Reise • May 21, 2019•Law School, Pre-Law, Choosing a Career and Landing a Job, Other Law School Issues, Features, Bar Exam
Thousands of new lawyers celebrated their graduation this weekend and, in time-honored tradition, celebrated for approximately one day before turning to studying for the bar exam.
On Friday, the ABA announced that it was tightening its accreditation standard for law schools’ bar passage rates. The new standard will require law schools to have a bar pass rate of at least 75% within two years of graduation.
Overall, this rate was 88.57% for the most recent year, but bar passage rates are highly correlated with LSAT scores. This change puts the pressure on bottom-tier law schools, i.e., those that admit the students with lowest LSAT scores.
Law schools had argued that this tighter standard hurt diversity efforts, as they seek to admit students who may have lower LSAT scores but come from underrepresented groups or with valuable life experience. The LSAT, after all, is not a gauge of whether any individual would be a good lawyer, and critics have argued that it favors students from privileged backgrounds and linking it to accreditation limits law school innovation.
Others, like Law School Transparency, supported the change as a consumer protection issue, arguing that unscrupulous law schools have profited by lowering admission standards and admitting students unlikely to pass the bar, but taking massive loans to pay tuition.
Bar passage rates have been falling in recent years, and there are at least 14 law schools that would have failed this standard based on two-year 2015-2016 bar passage rates. The list is in these interesting analyses by David Frakt and Gary Rusin. Four of these have already closed or been put on probation by the ABA (Arizona Summit, Valparaiso, Whittier, and John Marshall).
Bar passage is an especially fraught issue in California, which has the nation’s highest “cutoff rate” (i.e. a high state standard for passage). California announced on Friday that only 31.4% of bar takers passed; while that includes many repeat test-takers (who have a smaller chance of ever passing), it is instructive that first-time test-takers from outside California had only a 48% pass rate.
Time will tell whether additional law schools will close or merge, or whether changes in admissions or institutional bar prep will help schools exceed this new standard.
The takeaway for prospective law students remains that being admitted to law school – and taking out loans in order to go – is not a guarantee of a well-paying job on the other end. Students should think carefully and critically about their potential ROI on law school, especially those considering paying full tuition and/or going to a lower-tier school.
The ABA’s move on Friday was another reaction to the shifting conditions in the legal market and legal education, changes that prospective law students would be wise to understand.
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