With tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, some law school grads are unable to pass the bar to become lawyers. Are their law schools to blame?
Sam Goldstein graduated from law school in 2013, eager to embark on a legal career.
Five years later, he is still waiting. After eight attempts, Goldstein has not passed the bar exam, a requirement to become a practicing attorney in most states.
“I did not feel I was really prepared at all” to pass the bar, Goldstein said of his three years in law school. “Even the best of test preps can’t really help you unless you’ve had that solid foundation in law school.”
Goldstein attended Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix, one of 18 U.S. law schools where at least a quarter of graduates who took the bar exam didn’t pass within two years, according to a yearlong USA TODAY Network investigation into the schools.
The analysis of data from the American Bar Association shows that the law schools include large state universities, private for-profits and independent colleges enrolling, in all, about 8,000 students, or 7% of U.S. law school students.
Experts said the numbers represent a significant failure to meet the expectations of law school students, who graduate after spending three years in school with debt averaging more than $115,000.
“If you are offering people a program that is designed to lead to admission to the bar, then there should be a reasonable expectation of achieving the goal,” said Deborah Jones Merritt, a law professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
Goldstein’s experience highlights the difficulties law school graduates face when they struggle to pass the bar. The exam is offered twice a year, and it takes a few months to get results. Failing even once can significantly delay a graduate’s entry into the profession.
In the meantime, many take lower-paying jobs, as Goldstein did, working as a law clerk. What he earned didn’t put a dent in his $285,000 in student-loan debt, most of which was accrued in law school. The cost to Goldstein of repeatedly taking the exam, including travel and preparation, has so far totaled $18,000.
Investigation finds some law schools are failing graduates
A USA TODAY Network investigation finds a quarter of the graduates from some U.S. law schools don’t pass the bar within two years.
On Monday, a policymaking body for the ABA will weigh a controversial proposal that would toughen the bar-pass standard for law schools. The proposal is likely to be vigorously debated and comes after criticism that the accrediting body has allowed schools to admit too many lower-achieving students who struggle to pass the bar.
Here’s what could change: Law schools have five years to show 75% of their graduates who take the bar exam have passed. The proposal would narrow that to two years.
Supporters of the change say the five-year time frame has allowed schools with dismal bar-passage rates to continue operating. Critics worry struggling schools will respond by requiring higher scores on the law school entrance exam. This will hurt diversity in law schools and the legal profession, they say, because minority and economically disadvantaged students historically have scored lower on the Law School Admissions Test.
Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit group that tracks data related to law schools, said the ABA’s bar-passage requirement, known in legal circles as Standard 316, is full of loopholes and doesn’t hold schools accountable. No school has ever been found out of compliance by the ABA, including when several schools posted bar-pass rates below 50% in consecutive years.
“It’s virtually impossible to fail,” McEntee said, “although some schools are managing to come close.”
‘We don’t want to slam the doors’
In 2018, the ABA lifted the curtain on the performance of its roughly 200 accredited schools, publishing for the first time the bar-pass rates for their 2015 classes during the two years after graduation.
Western Michigan University Cooley Law School was among the lower-performing schools, with a 70% passage rate during that period.
The private, Lansing-based school is one of the least selective law schools in the country.
Jeffrey Martlew, Cooley’s interim president, said the school gives students who might be rejected by other law schools the opportunity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become successful lawyers.
Cooley became the largest law school in the country during the boom for legal education from 2000 to 2010, enrolling nearly 4,000 students at its peak. Amid a decline in law school enrollment since 2010, Cooley became more lenient. In its most recently admitted class, the bottom 25% of students had an average LSAT score of 139, down from 143 a few years earlier.
Martlew acknowledged that a score of 139 is too low for admission. In short order, he said, he plans to improve the academic profile of its students and boost graduates’ bar-passage rates. Under his plan, students who enroll through the standard admission process would need an LSAT score of at least 145.
Martlew, a former judge, opposes the ABA’s proposed bar-pass standard. He called it a “radical departure” that, if adopted at all, should be phased in, so schools can adjust.
More importantly, he said, the standard would force law schools to turn away lower-profile students, among them many minority students, a move that would probably make the nation’s law schools less diverse.
“We don’t want to slam the door on our access mission,” he said, “which is really what makes us different than any other law school.”
No ‘one-size-fits-all rule’
Others share Martlew’s concern about the proposed requirement’s impact on law school diversity.
Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the Howard University School of Law in Washington, called the proposal a “one-size-fits-all rule” that would punish schools whose mission is to educate students from marginalized communities.
A historically black school that opened four years after the Civil War, Howard had a 73% passage rate on the bar exam after two years. That’s slightly below the proposed 75% requirement.
Kimberly Delk Eason, attorney general for the National Black Law Student Association, said that instead of penalizing schools with lower scores, the ABA should require them to provide more student services, such as bar-preparation courses for third-year students.
Some schools already do this, but the ABA doesn’t require it.
ABA officials said there is no evidence that law schools would use a bar-pass standard as a basis for decreasing diversity; the ABA requires schools to commit to diversity, the organization said.
McEntee of Law School Transparency doesn’t put much weight on the argument that the change would shut down law schools that enroll large numbers of minorities. If a school has low bar-pass rates, it’s doing more harm than good, he said.
“People who don’t get through school and don’t pass the bar exam are not diversifying our profession,” he said.
Some schools have used more selective admissions to raise bar scores.
At the University of South Dakota School of Law, the state’s only law school, bar-pass rates began falling in 2014. By 2017, 46% of first-time takers were passing.
The drop coincided with a decision to admit students with lower LSAT scores and grade-point averages, as the school tried to maintain enrollment amid declining applications. The LSAT is considered the best predictor before law school of whether a student will pass the bar exam.
Many of the nation’s least selective law schools used a similar strategy to fill their classes after 2010 as law firms downsized during the Great Recession and law school enrollment plummeted.
The number of law schools admitting at least 25% of students considered “at risk” of failing the bar jumped from 30 schools to 74 schools from 2010 to 2014, according to a report in 2015 by Law School Transparency.
South Dakota lawmakers, alarmed by the sudden decline in graduates’ bar scores, demanded more oversight. The Legislature found more funding, which the school used to reduce the size of the incoming class by 40% and to be more selective in admissions. The school began offering a bar-prep class.
In July, 82% of first-time test takers passed the state bar exam.
“Has it been grueling? Absolutely grueling,” Dean Thomas Geu said. “It’s been a magnificent challenge.”
ABA is ‘out of step’
The decline in law school graduates’ performance has drawn the attention of federal regulators.
The ABA Council, the accrediting body for law schools, came under harsh criticism in 2016 from a U.S. Department of Education panel, which recommended suspending for a year its ability to accredit new law schools.
Members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, meeting in June 2016, had pointed questions about rising student loan debt and law schools enrolling more students at risk for not passing the bar.
Panel members criticized the ABA for not withdrawing the accreditation of any school during the past five years.
“This feels like an agency that is out of step with a crisis in its profession, out of step with the changes in higher ed and out of step with the plight of the students that are going through the law schools,” said Paul LeBlanc, a committee member and president of Southern New Hampshire University, according to a transcript of the hearing.
The U.S. Department of Education didn’t follow the panel’s recommendation and allowed the ABA to continue to accredit law schools.
Several of the 18 law schools with pass rates below 75% for their 2015 graduates declined comment to the USA TODAY Network or did not return messages seeking comment: Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco; Puerto Rico’s Inter American University; New England Law in Boston; Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law; District of Columbia John A. Clarke School of Law; Syracuse University College of Law in New York; American University Washington College of Law in Washington; Indiana’s Valparaiso University Law School; Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School; and California’s Whittier Law School.
Some public law schools saw a quarter of their 2015 graduates not pass the bar exam within two years, according to the ABA analysis. These included law schools at the University of South Dakota, University of North Dakota and University of the District of Columbia.
But most who don’t pass are from private schools, including two in Puerto Rico, Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico School of Law, and Inter American University in Puerto Rico School of Law.
Pontifical’s interim dean, Fernando Moreno-Orama, said the proposed change to bar-passage requirements concerns him because law schools don’t control the content of the bar exam or set the passing score. The Puerto Rico bar exam covers more than a dozen areas of law, he said, a mixture of U.S. and Spanish law, “so the amount of material you need to know is enormous.”
The school made changes and pass rates improved, he said, “but it’s not enough. We have to do better.”
Two other law schools on the low-performing list are operated by the same for-profit company.
Florida Coastal School of Law had a 72% pass rate over two years. The Jacksonville-based school is owned by the same for-profit company, InfiLaw, that operates Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix, which also has struggled with bar-pass rates.
Florida Coastal’s Dean of Academics Jennifer Reiber takes issue with the ABA’s proposed requirements. She said they fail to take into account what she called “non-persisters” – people who give up after failing the exam once.
Some graduates may not want to practice law, she said, and plan to use a law degree to further their careers in journalism or public policy. They “reflexively take the bar once,” she said, to see if they can pass.
Florida Coastal’s sister school, Arizona Summit, had the lowest bar-pass rate in the country for its 2015 graduates, according to the ABA analysis. Sixty percent passed within two years, compared with 88% nationwide.
Arizona Summit officials acknowledged that in their quest to increase diversity, they admitted too many students with lower GPAs and LSAT scores who struggled to pass the bar.
The ABA put the school on probation in 2017 for reasons separate from the bar exam standard. (The school’s low bar-pass rates still didn’t fail the ABA standard because of the five-year time frame.)
School officials made changes to admissions, curriculum and student services. Despite their efforts, enrollment dwindled.
The ABA moved to revoke the school’s accreditation in June. Before that could happen, school officials announced they were no longer accepting new students and planned to close after the spring 2020 semester.
Jessie Myrehn is among the Arizona Summit graduates who didn’t pass the bar exam within two years of graduation.
The 54-year-old has been working as a law clerk and teaching online college classes in the interim.
She attributes narrowly failing the exam in 2017 to getting a migraine on the second day of testing. It has taken time to work out details with a doctor. She plans to retake the exam in February, this time with accommodations that will give her more time.
“It’s just time to do this,” she said.
‘Something is wrong’
ABA officials said a tougher standard would better protect students.
Law schools will be more conscious of whom they admit and whether those students have the talent and drive to enter the profession, said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education.
Getting 75% of students to pass the bar exam within two years may be a problem for a few schools, Currier said. But the ABA Council says “it’s a problem you have to overcome,” he said.
Merritt, the law professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, called the proposal a “reasonable standard” for ABA accreditation.
“We really have to be careful, given the high price of legal education, that schools don’t end up creating false hopes in students and end up admitting too many who aren’t passing the bar,” she said.
Most schools will easily meet the tougher standard, said Merritt, who wrote a position paper when a similar proposal was debated by the ABA a few years ago. Schools that fail will have to develop programs to help students pass.
Some schools may end up closing, she said, but that’s OK.
“The point of accreditation is to make sure there’s a certain level of quality,” she said.
The ABA Council began pushing its proposal to revise the bar exam standard in 2016.
If adopted, schools that fail would have two years to turn around or risk having their ABA accreditation revoked.
The loss of accreditation would essentially be a death knell for a school because most states require students to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school in order to sit for the bar exam.
After an unsuccessful attempt to revise the standard in 2017, the proposal is back this year.
Monday, the ABA Council will ask the House of Delegates to weigh in again during the ABA’s Midyear meeting in Las Vegas. The proposed change is likely to be met with fierce opposition once again. If the delegates don’t concur, the proposal will go back to the council, which has the final decision.
3 schools already shuttering
A handful of schools that would be at risk if the proposed standard goes into effect announced plans to close.
Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix, Whittier Law School in Southern California and Valparaiso Law School in northern Indiana are not accepting new students and will shut once students finish their degrees.
Goldstein, the Arizona Summit graduate who failed the bar exam eight times, supports a tougher bar-pass standard for schools. He said the change would make schools “actually focus on helping their students pass the bar.”
Despite his struggles, he has no plans to give up on his dreams of becoming an attorney.
The last time he took the bar exam in July 2018, he missed by 13 points, the closest he has come. He is going to take the exam in February – the ninth time.
“I’m going to give it another shot,” he said, “and hopefully be done with it.”
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