Last month, the American Bar Association (ABA), the national organization long responsible for accrediting American law schools, raised the standards for bar exam passage rates that law schools must achieve in order to be deemed accredited.
Under the new requirement, a law school must demonstrate that at least 75% of its graduates pass the bar exam within two years of earning a diploma in order to be considered an ABA-accredited law school. Previously, law schools had five years to show a 75% passage rate. The new rule also eliminates a previous provision that allowed schools to only report on 70% of their graduating classes and an allowance that permitted schools to be deemed in compliance if they could show that first-time bar exam takers were within 15 percentage points of passing in a jurisdiction where a school’s graduates sat for the bar exam in three of the past five years.
The ABA had twice previously rejected this heightened standard. The managing director of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, Barry Currier, lauded the new rule as being more straightforward than past rules and more appropriate for the current legal landscape. He further explained that bar exam performance is an important tool for accreditation, as most students go to law school with the goal of becoming lawyers, which requires passing the bar exam.
The Impact on Law Students
Opponents to the new rule have long contended that it will have negative impacts on diversity in the legal profession and will discourage schools from admitting students with lower LSAT scores, out of fear of future poor performance on the bar exam.
Other critics worry that the heightened accreditation requirements incentivize law schools to emphasize test scores over skill-centric learning designed to prepare law students to actually practice law.
In recent years, the national average score on the multistate bar exam has been reported to be in decline, with scores from July 2018 being the lowest since the mid-1980s. Several states that are home to many lawyers, such as California, New York, and Florida, also reported lower bar exam passage rates last year. Nationwide, bar exam passage rates fell to just 54% last year, whereas they were as high as 68% in 2009. California, which has notoriously high standards for bar exam passage, had a notably low passage rate last year of only 36%, which is raising concerns about future accreditation status for some California law schools.
Had the new rules been in place last year, there are certain law schools that would not have made the cut, such as San Francisco Law School. In response, the school has stepped up efforts to help graduates, through programs like bar exam “boot camps” and requiring law students to take more core courses while in law school.
While the new initiatives may very well help students pass the bar exam, the competing concern is that they give law students fewer opportunities for hands-on electives and clinics that teach more practical legal skills. Legal education groups are concerned that similar impacts will be felt at other law schools as a result of the ABA’s new, stricter accreditation rules.
Currier acknowledged that some law schools may have to make adjustments in curricula, admission standards, or both. Nonetheless, the ABA believes that accreditation is an important national standard for the legal industry and contends that the new rule will prevent law schools from taking advantage of law students by allowing them to incur huge law school debt yet not preparing them to pass the bar exam.