Tougher Bar-Passage Standard for Law Schools Sparks Objections
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Photo: Associated Press
Bar-exam passage rates and racial diversity are two flashpoints in the legal industry. The two are now bumping against each other as the legal establishment weighs a proposal to tighten law school accrediting standards.
Factions are again forming in the battle over the American Bar Association’s bar-passage standard for law schools, with diversity and consumer advocates at odds over a proposal to strengthen the rule.
The ABA is considering a plan that would require 75% of a law school’s graduates who sit for a bar exam to pass the test within two years. The proposal has been floated amid a perplexing trend of declining bar exam scores nationwide and increasing attention on the racial make-up of the profession.
A number of law school deans and the largest nationwide black law student association are objecting to the proposed standard, expressing concern about its potential impact on schools with larger minority student populations.
If adopted, the new standard would “jeopardize the existence of traditionally minority law schools and ultimately erase the profession’s modest gains in diversity over the last several decades,” states a July 29 letter co-signed by the deans of more than a dozen law schools. The deans represent schools “designed to serve historically underrepresented minority population,” including Howard University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University and Florida A&M University.
Many of the schools represented in the letter reported passage rates among first-time test-takers in the 60% to 70% range, according to the most ABA data. Schools currently are required to report the passage rate of at least 70% of graduates who took the test for the time during the previous calendar year. So actual passage rates may be lower.
The National Black Law Students Association, which represents 6,000 students, expressed similar objections in another comment letter submitted to the ABA.
Proponents of the 75% rule say low-performing schools aren’t advancing the goal of greater diversity.
“Graduates who fail the bar exam cannot diversify the profession. Instead, these graduates suffer substantial personal and financial costs,” wrote Ohio State University law professor Deborah Jones Merritt, who studies legal education. “Maintaining the accreditation of law schools with poor bar passage rates, on the contrary, is a counterproductive way to diversify the profession.”
She also countered that most minority students attend law schools that appear to be safely above that 75% threshold.
Intensifying the debate is the recent, sharp decline in bar exam scores across the nation, a trend highlighted in another comment letter signed by the Society of American Law Teachers, a left leaning group.
The group’s letter urged the ABA to table the proposal until more is known about why the passage rates have dropped.
The ABA’s legal education council is expected to take up the standard proposal when it gathers in Chicago for a meeting in October, according to Law.com.
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