Law Review: Bar exam competition heats up in tight market

Posted: November 05, 2013

It is the last agonizing hurdle of law school, and it takes place after graduation.

Each summer and fall, thousands of law students nationwide throw themselves into frenzied review courses in advance of taking the bar exam. They spend hundreds of hours and often quite a bit of money cramming for a test that will, for most, decide whether the three preceding years lead to a career or were merely a futile exercise.

This torment typically has been the newly graduated law student's alone to bear. But a few years ago, administrators at Pennsylvania State University's Dickinson Law School thought there were a few things they could do to improve the school's entirely adequate yet indisputably pedestrian bar passage rate of about 82 percent.

They decided to see whether they could identify students who would have trouble on the bar in advance and then target them with one-on-one instruction. Legal writing and analysis were heavily emphasized. The idea was that students who honed their writing and thinking skills also would improve their performance on the devilishly difficult multiple-choice portion of the test.

Passage rates shot up.

Though the combined passage rate for all Pennsylvania bar takers on the July 2013 test was 77 percent, Penn State students passed at a rate of 93.83 percent, the highest rate of any law school in Pennsylvania. It just squeaked ahead of the University of Pennsylvania at 92.68 percent and Temple University Law School at 92.31 percent. Penn won the bar exam sweepstakes the year before.

It's tempting to say that the game at Penn State is to teach to the test, and that a more defensible technique might be to retool the academic program so the skills needed to pass the bar are acquired over three years of law school, and not in a harried last-minute rush.

But that would fly in the face of the undeniable reality that, no matter how rigorous the program, there will always be a handful of students at every academic institution, no matter its level, who underperform.

"The very clear answer is, that is exactly what we are doing," said Keith Elkin, dean of Dickinson Law School, when asked whether the bar exam program at Penn State focused exclusively on improving test scores. "It is specifically for one purpose and one purpose only."

Elkin's point is simple: Bar regulators don't pretend the exam remotely resembles the practice of law. But graduates must pass it to be licensed.

"The bar exam is not legal practice," Elkin said. "It is a closed-book test and the practice of law is not a closed-book test. Half the exam is a multiple-choice test and the practice of law is not a multiple-choice test."

Taking the bar exam is a rite of passage that sends shudders through the souls of young graduates. But it is perhaps even more important now that the law job market is under such stress and competition for jobs is sharp. With statistics showing only 56 percent of this year's class employed in jobs that require a law degree, the strains in the job market have never been more pronounced.

For nearly a decade, the number of law graduates taking the Pennsylvania bar exam has been remarkably steady. Except for an occasional spike, there typically have been about 2,000 test-takers. Law school applications have been dropping precipitously, reflecting the miserable hiring climate. And law schools have responded by reducing enrollments. That has something to do with law schools' desire to bolster admissions statistics - the standardized test scores and grade-point averages of incoming first-year students. Penn State Dickinson's enrollment has declined from about 180 in 2011 to 132 this year.

Elkin says the more important issue is that it is the responsibility of schools not to admit students who won't be able to do the work. What that means is that law schools, in the very near future, will be graduating far fewer students. Fewer will be taking the bar exam. And fewer will be competing for limited openings in the job market.

215-854-5957 @cmondics


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