Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bar Passage Blues

A friend of mine passed along this:

An article in this month's California State Bar Journal
discusses that bar passage rates have been dropping nationally.
As the article states:


Bar exam pass rates have declined
steadily in recent years, both nationally and in
California.According to the National Conference
of Bar Examiners, 64 percent of would-be lawyers
who took bar exams nationwide in 2004, the
last year for which statistics are available,
passed. Some 28,110 people failed that year.
In 2000, 65 percent passed and in l995,
the pass rate was 70 percent.

While the California bar is notoriously difficult, it is clear that bar
examiners nationwide have been raising the bar. Meanwhile law schools
play the blame game -- "Oh, gee, we shouldn't be taking students with
LSATs below XX! The students with lower scores just cannot compete."

"We should be tougher in our grading; our bar passage rates look bad,
and it's not fair to take the students' money when they have no hope
of passing the bar after paying us all that tuition."

"Our students need to practice more on
(a) writing; it builds analytical skills and is essential
to essay writing and bar passage (and oh yeah, as well
as being a good lawyer);

(b) multiple choice exams; our students need to practice
these for the multi-state portion of the exam (not
that it affects lawyering, but what the heck);

(c) skills; more and more bar exams are including a skills
portion where the hapless students have to draft a memo
or contract or do some other lawyerly activity under fire."

Actually all those things are true; they will help students pass the bar exam, as will adding courses that give at-risk students academic support. You can also give some bar preparation during law school, just as long as the law school experience does not turn into a bar prep course itself.

However, all this hand-wringing over bar-passage rates really gets to me. Can we keep in mind that the bar exams, while sold as a remedy and preventitive for poor lawyering, is largely a guild? Its main purpose is preventing too many lawyers from entering the field and diluting the market value of the degree. I hate to be so crass about it, but that is essentially what this is about. The bar examiners set a percentage that they will allow to pass. You are above or below that cut. Boom. That's it for that exam period. Does that have anything at all to do with quality of lawyering, skill in representing clients or ethics? It has some, but not as much as we would like to think. And in the law schools, we would like to think it's all the students' fault; they are already carrying all the burden on this one, folks! Let's at least be honest with ourselves about what is going on.

The wonderful lampoon of the Bar Exam is by Charles Bragg, whose terrific legal art can be purchased at

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