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ABA Tightens Bar Passage Standards for Law Schools

The American Bar Association has some bad news for law schools that churn out J.D.s who never pass the bar, despite three years of study and six figures of student debt: You'll have to start doing better.

On Friday, the ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar adopted a proposal to tighten bar passage rate standards. Under the new rules, schools will be required to show that most of their graduates pass the bar, and relatively quickly.

75 Percent or Else

The changes come after years of criticism against the ABA, which has been accused of accrediting too many law schools during a time when the legal market couldn't absorb new grads and of failing to hold low-performing law schools accountable. In June, the Department of Education threatened to temporarily strip the ABA of its accreditation powers, for just those reasons.

Under the new rules, known as Standard 316, 75 percent of graduates must pass a bar exam within a two-year period. That shouldn't be too high a bar (ahem) for many law schools to meet. According to data gathered by StartClass, an educational research website, most schools have 75 percent or more of their reported first-time test takers pass the bar.

But plenty of schools hover just under that line. The University of San Diego Law School, for example, has a first-time passage rate of 74.5, according to StartClass. Case Western's law school has 73.1.

Under the new standard, a law school's students could sit for a max of four bar exams (two summer tests and two winter ones) before the school is held accountable for their passage rate.

Closing Loopholes

The new standards don't just tighten the belt on bar passage rate, they also close existing loopholes. As the ABA Journal writes:

With the current standard, there are various ways a law school can be in compliance. One is that that at least 75 percent of graduates from the five most recent calendar years have passed a bar exam, or there's a 75 percent pass rate for at least three of those five years. Also, a school can be in compliance if just 70 percent of its graduates pass the bar at a rate within 15 percentage points of the average first-time bar pass rate for ABA-approved law school graduates in the same jurisdiction for three out the five most recently completed calendar years.

Those two compliance loopholes would be closed.

The new rule still has to be adopted by the ABA's House of Delegates as a whole. The earliest this could happen would be at the ABA's mid-year meeting in February, allowing the rule to go in to effect for the July 2017 bar exam.

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