Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?

Thank you so much to Best Practices for Legal Education for inviting me to blog again and to Elizabeth Murad for her remarkable work in keeping contributors in touch and on track.  So much is written about the very real decline in bar passage that it is easy for schools with high pass rates–or at least high in relation to other schools in their state– to ignore the need to change what goes on in the classroom and dismiss the excellent work being done in effective law teaching as a problem for “lesser schools” in “lower tiers.”

We know, as legal educators , members of the bar and even members of the public, that bar passage rates have been falling.  And we also know that many, if not most, law schools are admitting students today with LSAT scores lower than those that they  admitted ten years ago. So it’s easy to see a correlation between lower scores and falling rates.  After all, the bar exam is a test much like the LSAT–why wouldn’t there be a relationship?   But even if students are failing the bar exam for the same reasons they are getting low LSAT Scores,  we still have the opportunity to intervene in ways that we know raise pass rates.  This blog contains so many resources for those who want to teach more effectively.   Why wouldn’t we want this for all our students?

Everyone at a school with a “bar passage problem” is well aware that we cannot continue to do the same things we always have when they are no longer working the way they used to.  But we hear this less at schools satisfied with their bar passage  Perhaps the students who are failing are really canaries in the coal mine and a warning to all of legal education that all of today’s law students find it more difficult translating their legal education into the very peculiar format required for bar passage-regardless of LSAT score? Everyone who has ever studied for the bar exam remembers it as a grueling, unpleasant, and highly intensive process–but until very recently that process started after graduation and barring personal disaster almost always resulted in passage.  Even when it didn’t, the consequences of were lower.  Today, students safely employed in September find themselves fired if October brings news of failure.  We need to consider bar passage as an issue both for students who fail and for those who pass–after all, both groups spend the same three years in law school.

Anecdotal evidence (which we could easily substitute for actual data by doing some surveys) suggests that bar passage anxiety spreads well beyond those students most at risk.  All students know that the stakes are high and many believe that their chances of passing are lower than students in the past.  Does that affect their choices while in law school?  Could they be doing more to prepare for their future careers if we could provide them more effective instruction?

Medical students and educators are expressing the same kinds of concerns about their curriculum being shaped by a test as we should be about ours.   We can’t easily change the bar exam–but we can adopt more direct methods of instruction that support not just bar passage but create time for the more complex and less exam focused thinking that we want to be going on in class.

I hope over the week to share resources that would encourage everyone to consider how studying for a very old fashioned test is negatively shaping the education of all of today’s law students. (and because it always warrants reposting-here is a recently revised article by, Louis Schulze of what they have done at FIU to apply the “science of learning” across the curriculum in support of higher bar passage.

 

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