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Monday, September 24, 2007

Law School Curriculum & Passing the Bar

Here's some interesting news that my colleague, Jim Fischer, alerted me to. I thought I would share. The topic ties nicely to themes raised in Rick's recent post on Posner and whether more practical skills should be emphasized in the law school curriculum. (Rick's Post)

In many states, bar passage rates are a significant concern. This is certainly true in California, where a school's reputation may largely hinge on its bar pass rate (not to mention that it can cause school's to risk continued ABA accreditation -- think Whittier & Golden Gate law schools). The conventional wisdom is that students that are ranked in the bottom of their class should take as many courses whose subject matter is tested on the bar as possible. Many law schools even require that lower ranked students take bar-topic courses in their second and third years of law school. The hope is that requiring students to take courses whose subjects are tested on the bar increases the ability of those students to pass the bar exam.

But a recent study has concluded that the relationship between law school courseloads and bar pass rate is very weak. An article describing the study appears here: (Link). And here is the study itself: (Link).

I've always been nervous about steering students to a course solely because its topic appears on the bar. Although I think students can benefit from taking some foundational-type courses -- courses like, say, Tax, Administrative Law, Const. Criminal Procedure (if not required), Remedies, Federal Courts, etc. -- I find it very difficult to tell students that they should fill their entire third year with courses thay may, or may not, help them with the bar. By taking these courses, students miss out on other courses that might help them in practice (e.g., advanced writing courses, trial advocacy, pretrial practice, drafting courses etc.), or courses on topics that they just find fascinating. I'd be interested to hear what others think. What advice do faculty give students on courses that they should take in their 2L and 3L years?

Posted by Austen Parrish on September 24, 2007 at 04:28 PM | Permalink


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Amanda, I agree. Interest and passion can make for a good attorney (among other things). Good grades is not alone a guarantee of success. I also suspect with evening/night program students particularly that poor performance is not always the result of a lack of dedication (i.e., the "semi-literate, class-cutting, partying" student described in Anthony's post). Rather mediocre performance seems often the result of having to balance an unusual number of responsibilities, including work, child-care, family difficulties etc.

That said, I do agree with Anthony that a Bar Exam can serve as an important screen to weed out applicants who are unqualified or not sufficiently prepared to practice law. I have no problem with that. But I'm not convinced that the bar exams of most states serve that function well, or that what is tested on those exams have any correlation to what it means to be a good attorney. At least in California, the bar exam seems a simple way to monitor and keep attorney admissions low, rather than as a way to ensure quality lawyers. And although many schools have lower academic attrition than they had in the past, except for a very few schools, most still have a measurable attrition rate after the first year.

Both issues are somewhat removed from the original post (although very welcome!). Whether law schools should focus on teaching topics that are taught on bar exams, or steer students towards those courses, I think is still an issue worth grappling with.

Posted by: AP | Oct 4, 2007 2:14:42 PM

This is simply anecdotal evidence, but at the school I attend (I am a 4L at a night school in CA), last year it was the bottom half that passed the bar and not the top half. Wow, that was strange. But, not really, I have noticed that the bottom half is the half that works the hardest and has the most targeted interests in the law--they are goal oriented. They are willing to take chances with a class that they know may be hard, or the prof. is a hard grader, but they are interested in the subject. Whereas the top half takes the classes that they know will give them the "A" that will lead to the high GPA. Which path is better? They both have strategy,yet the bottom half, I guess has learned that with the bar, there is no easy way around the exam. This is not true every year at our school, but it was interesting. My take on this subject is follow your interest. If you don't have an interest than why are you in law school?? It is interest and passion that makes good attorneys, not simply getting good grades.

Posted by: Amanda | Oct 4, 2007 1:47:41 PM

Why hasn't anyone asked whether students at the bottom of the class ought to pass the bar? Isn't the bar exam simply doing the job that law schools used to do, which was flunking some students out? Law schools used to be concerned about the injustices and screw-ups that semi-literate, class-cutting and partying students could inflict on innocent clients if such students are simply handed a license to practice law.

Posted by: Anthony D'Amato | Oct 4, 2007 8:46:50 AM

Law Grad: That's a great point. Looking back, are there certain courses you wished faculty had steered you to?

Posted by: AP | Sep 25, 2007 10:44:52 PM

I'm not faculty, just a law school alum.
I sincerely wish I had received some better direction and advice before scheduling my 2L year. Instead, I basically created a hodge-podge of courses with little guidance. I realize different faculty members will have different philosophies, but in retrospect I could have used something more substantial than "take what you think you will like."

Posted by: law grad | Sep 25, 2007 10:24:27 PM

Jim -

I agree with you that students in the bottom of the class are in much greater risk of not passing the bar on their first attempt. I think that phenomenon is near universal. I too have seen significante evidence describing what you suggest (sorry if I implied something else). I also agree that providing targeted advice and counseling is advisable if a law school is attempting to increase their bar pass rate.

But the study seems to raise a more fundamental, if not controversial, point. It may suggest that students in the bottom portion of the class are wise to take more niche classes (at least those focusing on practical skills) and seminars as a way to increase their GPAs, if courses covering bar topics have no impact on pass rates. Or it may mean that professors should mentor lower-ranked students by suggesting that they take a wide-range of courses (similar to what perhaps Sam says he does), instead of focusing on bar-related courses. This certainly seems contrary to the prevailing wisdom of many.

Posted by: AP | Sep 25, 2007 2:42:05 PM

As far as I am aware, the risk of failing the bar exam is not normally distributed throughout a law school class. I have seen considerable evidence that students with grade averages at or near the bottom of a class are far more likely to fail the bar exam than students in the top half of the class. At least at one law school I am familiar with, when the law school experience of those students failing the bar exam was analyzed by the administration it was revealed that those students were taking more niche courses and seminars than other students (effectively opting out of exam classes and more rigid grade requirements, as an effort to bolster lagging GPAs). I don't want to put too much emphasis in bar classes as the solution to the problem, but second and third year students do select classes based in part on the grades they expect to receive. If the students who are most likely to fail the bar are opting out of exam classes, and are also avoiding bar-type classes altogether, maybe law schools need to consider advising students at the bottom of the class differently than other students. I thus find it hard to generalize about advice for all second and third year students, and think that a more targeted course advising strategy may be advisable for a law school attempting to bolster its bar passage rate.

Posted by: Jim Rossi | Sep 25, 2007 10:52:00 AM

Austen --

I did a similar study of bar pass at my institution and found that curricular and co-curricular choices had little impact on bar pass rates. Like the authors of this study, I found that class rank and LSAT were the best predictors of bar pass success.

When asked, I encourage students to pick classes based on professor and not topic and to find a faculty member who can engage them in the material. If the student knows the area of law she will be practicing or if she wants expertise in a particular area for a summer job, I encourage her to take our school's offerings in that area. I discourage the students from taking classes simply because they are tested on the bar, but this view is not universally shared by my colleagues.

Posted by: Sam Kamin | Sep 24, 2007 6:39:37 PM

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