2015 Bar Exam Scores Reveal Worst Performance in Decades: What Does This Mean for Law Firms?

Gabriela Lazaro – Has the bar exam become too difficult or are current law students just not as smart as their predecessors? Nationwide, the underwhelming results of the July 2014 administration of the bar exam was blamed on a technical glitch involving ExamSoft. ExamSoft is a program available to test-takers who wish to use their personal laptops during the exam. According to John McAlary, Executive Director for the National Board of Law Examiners, the Board has used this software for nine years. The program blocks test-takers from having access to their computer files or to the Internet during the exam. ExamSoft experienced technical difficulties on the first day of testing in July 2014, causing bar takers in 43 states to be affected. The software froze causing test takers to face long delays when trying to upload their answers.

However, Erica Moeser, President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, did not believe that the tech scandal was the issue and passed the blame onto the students. When it came to the nationwide drop in Multistate Bar Exam (“MBE”) scores, she declared that July 2014’s bar-takers were simply “less able” than their predecessors. Nationwide, scores on the MBE sunk to a mean scaled score of 141.7, almost three points lower than the national mean for the July 2013 exam. July 2014’s score is the lowest national mean MBE score in ten years. Law school deans were outraged by Moeser’s statements, and demanded an investigation into the fairness of the test. Can we really blame these law school deans for being defensive? Their entire industry is in the midst of an unprecedented upheaval. Bloomberg Business explains that in the past four years fewer people have applied to law school than at any other point in the last 30 years. Law schools are seeing enrollment rates plummet and “can continue to expect to see some decline, until the market for going to law school improves.”

The number of law-school applicants continues to fall due to the rising costs of attending law school and the stagnate number of entry-level legal jobs. According to the American Bar Association, going to law school is no longer a decision to be taken lightly. Until the recession of 2008, law school was the go-to transition for college graduates who were unsure about what to do with their lives, or even for those graduates looking to bolster their resume. However, the current average cost of public law school tuition is $23,900 per year, and the average private law school tuition is nearly $42,000 a year.

Results from the July 2015 bar exam are even worse than they were in 2014. The average score on the MBE portion of the July test fell 1.6 points from the previous year, reaching its lowest level since Ronald Reagan was president. So, what caused the drop and who is to blame? Perhaps we can point the finger directly at law schools. As fewer people apply to law schools, some programs have started filling their campuses with students who are not as qualified as they once were. Chris Muller, a Pepperdine law professor, says, “graduates will keep getting hammered by the test as long as law schools keep lowering their admissions standards.” Muller goes on to say, “law schools must accept the fact that in order to produce graduates who will be able to pass the bar exam, they must heighten their admissions standards.”

What does this mean for the future of the legal profession? The answer to this question depends on who is answering it. For example, Tom Henry, Vice Chair of Willkie Farr & Gallagher’s Professional Personnel/Legal Recruiting Committee, says, “Shrinking law school classes and less qualified graduates haven’t cut into their talent pool. Boutique shops might not be so fortunate.” Henry seems to be saying that the decline in law school applicants and in bar passage rates are not affecting large firms comprised of over 100 attorneys, however, smaller firms, may be facing some issues. According to Nick Allard, Dean of Brooklyn Law School, “When fewer people pass the exam, poor and working-class Americans suffer in another way: most people in America can’t afford lawyers. Most small businesses can’t afford lawyers. The biggest cause of that is that there are too few lawyers being produced.” The bar exam, he goes on to explain, “perpetuates the status quo in a way that keeps qualified, motivated people from becoming lawyers and deprives most people of affordable legal services.”

Are there any solutions for declining bar passage rates? In his article on the Law Professors Blog Network, Scott Fruehwald comments “declining bar passage rates are not a disaster; they are an opportunity.  We can overcome the problem of declining bar passage rates with better educational methods”.  Law schools can begin to see these declines as an opportunity to improve. For example, the 11-year-old law school known as Florida International University has led the state of Florida in Bar passage rates for the last three years. FIU Law School Dean Alex Acosta attributes FIU’s success to hard work and a new academic excellence program he created, headed by a professor named Raul Ruiz. The professor works closely with each student, customizing a course of study to best prepare them for the exam and identifying their specific weaknesses. In addition, the professor makes himself available throughout the summer to work with these students. Proactivity among both law schools and law students could possibly help improve bar passage rates.






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