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School bar passage: When 75% is enough

Josephine Bahn
Josephine Bahn speaks at the 2015 ABA Annual Meeting.

The ABA and the Section on Legal Education may soon be generating much discussion and debate as they weigh a significant tightening of Standard 316, which relates to bar passage rates. The new standard would require schools to prove that at least 75% of students in each class have passed a bar examination within two years of graduation – which breaks down to 4 bar examinations.

A law school can currently satisfy Standard 316 in two ways. First, law schools are now given five years, not two, to meet the 75% bar passage standard, and can reach this goal based upon identifying the results for only 70% of the students in a graduating class. As you can tell, that is no where near the full snapshot of a graduating class.

The current standard provides another method, also based upon 70% of each class, allowing for law schools to demonstrate that their bar passage rate is no more than 15 points below the average first-time bar passage rate for their local jurisdiction. When scores are down across a state, and the bar is figuratively lowered, meeting 15 points below that low bar isn’t a serious standard.

For the last year I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the Law Student Member on the Council. I’ve finally been able to get a good grasp and understanding of how the standards interact with students on the ground, how the accreditation process for new schools work, and what exactly the council can do to protect law students across the country.

Law students everywhere had victories in the vote to repeal the Pay/Credit ban (Interpretation 305-2) earlier this year, and I believe that the 75% Rule will be another such victory.

The proposed rule forces more disclosure from law schools, requires concrete, tangible ways in which incoming or transferring students can judge which law school to attend, and gives the council the ability to reform or discipline schools who are underperforming.

Some may think I’m overlooking present students who may attend a school with a less than 75% pass rate – but they actually get the best benefit. Students at underperforming law schools will benefit from programming updates, targeted bar prep classes, and mostly likely a designated bar coordinator (if they don’t have one already). These stopgaps can help students attending at risk law schools succeed.

Some people may argue that 75% isn’t enough because most schools already meet this mark within three or four administrations per pupil. I see that argument, and understand the frustration of those critics of law schools generally. But this will take time, and maybe in a few more meetings the council will require a greater percentage and/or fewer administrations to maintain standards compliance – only time with tell.

But right now, this is a fantastic improvement over the current policies and procedures in effect concerning the bar passage rate requirements for law schools.

With most schools already performing at this high level and students receiving extra benefits if their school is underperforming, I’m not sure I see the catch. This is yet another step that the council has taken during my tenure to protect law students across the country during this current legal market forecast.

As my time on the council comes to an end, I can honestly say that each member has advocated for the continued success of law students and for improvements and safeguards from law schools.

Josephine Bahn Josephine Bahn graduated from New York Law School in May 2016 and passed the New York Bar Examination the following July. Currently, she is a member of the 2016-2017 Emerging Leaders class for the ABA Young Lawyers' Division and is serving as an ABA Presidential Appointment to the Legal Opportunity Scholarship. While in law school, she served as the Law Student on the Council of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar and two terms as Vice Chair in the ABA Law Student Division. She is clerking for a federal judge who sits in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.