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Bar Passage Rates Are Going to Be Terrible. Who Can We Blame?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 21, 2015 10:55 AM

Just a few months ago, young law students and aspiring future lawyers sat down for the ritualized torture that is the state bar exam. Now, the results are starting to come in and things aren't looking good.

Scores on the Multistate Bar Exam multiple-choice questions tanked, dropping even lower than last year's disappointing results. They were the lowest scores in over 25 years, dropping to a mean score of 139.9, compared to 2014's 141.5 and 2013's 144.3, Bloomberg reports. State passage rates are likely to continue their decline as a result.

Who will get the blame?

1. Law Students

Plenty of people are ready to fault all those dumb law students themselves. After all, they failed, not the schools and bar prep companies that took thousands and thousands of their dollars with the promise of training them for this very exam. (Sidebar: Don't worry, students, you're not actually dumb. California, which has the most difficult exam, still passed 60 percent of first time takers last year. Plus, most of you will still be lawyers. You're much better off worrying about finding a good job than passing the bar.)

Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners and a lawyer who never took the bar, had no qualms about blaming students. States "can expect to see some decline until the market for going to law school improves," she told Bloomberg. That is, if schools keep letting in students with lower qualifications, students can continue to expect lower pass rates. Pepperdine Law professor Derek Muller agreed, moaning that "you can only train students so far and so much."

2. Law Schools

They might not be able to get you a job, but for the amount they're charging, law school should at least be able to get you ready for the bar exam. Except, of course, preparing students for the legal profession is not something law schools are very good at. That leads to ridiculous situations like students spending thousands of dollars and months of study, after graduation, to finally learn the laws they'll need to know for the bar exam. As bar passage rates have dropped, schools have been slow to implement changes that could better prepare their graduates for the exam -- and for actual legal careers.

3. The Test Itself

What's that? A harder bar exam might result in lower scores? It seems like a plausible explanation. And this year's exam was harder, with students having to answer multiple choice questions on civil procedure for the first time in a July exam. Heavens.

Still, we're not sure if it was so hard that it would result in some of the massively lower passage rates that state bars are reporting. Of the handful of states to have released results, most saw big drops. Mississippi's pass rate dropped 27 percent and New Mexico dropped 12 percent, which would seem to indicate that more than a MBE question or two is at fault.

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