SAN FRANCISCO – The American Bar Association will hold a hearing about revisions to bar passage standards for law school at its annual meeting next month in San Francisco, weeks after a U.S. Department of Education committee recommended the association’s accrediting authority be suspended for a year.
The proposal, which was announced in March, would close loopholes in the way law schools are assessed on their graduates’ bar passage rates, requiring 75 percent of graduates who take the exam to pass within two years of graduation. The current requirement is for five years, and also allows schools other ways to demonstrate graduates are prepared to practice law.
In June, a DOE committee made the recommendation, and a final decision from the department is still pending.
The change was proposed before the DOE committee’s recommendations and came partly from increased media scrutiny over falling bar passage rates, according to Kyle McEntee, executive director and co-founder of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit that monitors law schools.
“We’re seeing bar passage rates fall,” McEntee told the Northern California Record. “We expect that to continue for the next three years.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that some schools are accepting candidates with a high risk of not passing the bar exam. McEntee authored a report looking at the state of legal education in 2015 and found that more schools are taking students with poor LSAT scores, who historically struggle in law school and have problems passing the bar exam.
The new standard would be a first step toward helping to ensure schools are more careful about who they accept, he said, because they would no longer be considered sufficient by keeping their bar passage rate within 15 percent of the passage rate of all first-time exam takers from ABA-accredited schools in their state.
“That standard is impossible to fail,” he said.
Some are opposing the change in standards. Six deans of law schools at historically black colleges and universities have signed a letter that says a change in the standards would disproportionally hurt minority law students. McEntee said he agrees that law as a profession is not nearly diverse enough and understands the concerns people are bringing up, but that the current situation is untenable.
“It’s not helping anyone to saddle graduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, have them not pass the bar, and not be able to get a job and repay their loans,” he said. “It’s not increasing the diversity of the profession.”
The ABA's has been working to find a way to increase standards and has taken the problem very seriously, McEntee said.
The high cost of law school and the high consequences of failure mean that something has to be done, he said.
“It’s not good for the profession long term or for the people being hurt,” he said.