Panel Near Decision on Law Schools' Bar Exam Passage Rates
Following years of deliberation, the panel overhauling the American Bar Association’s law school accreditation standards is near a decision about whether to tighten the rules governing rates of bar-examination passage by graduates.
The ABA’s Standards Review Committee will meet Friday and Saturday to discuss a range of proposals, none of which has proven as controversial as the bar-exam passage standard. Now the committee’s chairman, Saint Louis University School of Law professor Jeffrey Lewis, believes the group will finally reach a consensus.
"I think we will make a decision at this next meeting," he said.
The committee has already backed off a suggestion to raise the minimum passage rate from the existing 75 percent within five years of graduation to 80 percent within two years. The National Bar Association—the largest association of black lawyers and judges—and the Society of American Law Teachers this summer wrote a joint letter warning that the proposal would have "dire consequences on law schools with racially diverse populations."
Instead, the committee will discuss retaining the 75 percent passage minimum but requiring that threshold be met within two years rather than five—meaning law schools would have less time to get their graduates accredited professionally.
"This is a variation on the current interpretation, really," Lewis said. "It focuses on ultimate passage, not first-time passage—which seems like something a lot of the critics don’t understand."
The bar-passage standard is intended as consumer protection for law students, ensuring that schools adequately prepare them to pass the bar exam and enter practice in exchange for three years of tuition, Lewis said.
The National Bar Association praised the committee for moving away from the 80 percent passage minimum, but still fears harm to members of minority groups, some of which tend to score lower on standardized tests, studies show. "Everyone has the goal of consumer protection, but standards should be thoughtfully constructed," Patricia Rosier, the organization’s president, said in late January.
"The [committee] has failed to base its proposal on any publicly available data on ultimate pass rates, or any evidence that bar examinations and pass rates are reliable, valid measures of the abilities of graduates to practice law," she said. "The unintended consequence will cause many law schools to limit enrollment to students with higher standardized test scores instead of allowing students to prove they can succeed."
Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners and a former committee member, has observed that relatively few candidates sit for the bar exam more than five times. For that reason, she argues, a two-year window for passage should not prove unduly burdensome.