The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates on Monday rejected a proposal to require law schools to have 75 percent of graduates pass the bar within two years of graduation.
The ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admissions proposed the change, amid criticism that law schools do a disservice to graduates who can’t pass the bar. Many such graduates borrow to attend law school, and have also borrowed for their undergraduate educations, leaving them with large debts and without the employment possibilities that passing the bar brings. Supporters of the change also said that while some law school graduates take longer than two years to pass the bar, most of those who pass do so within two years.
But the vote by the ABA House of Delegates wasn’t even close. The proposal lost, 88-334.
Critics cited what they saw as two problems with the proposal. One is that the standards for California’s bar exam are significantly tougher than those in other states. Some say that there isn’t evidence that California’s standards are appropriate. But while those standards exist, the proposed ABA rule would have had a disproportionate impact on them. And many of those law schools serve large populations of minority students.
A letter to the ABA from legal educators focused on diversity said that 11 of the 19 law schools that, based on old data, would have lost ABA accreditation under the new rule, had “significant” minority populations (defined as more than 30 percent students of color). Two of those were historically black law schools.
“If these schools had lost their accreditation, this would have considerably harmed efforts to diversify the legal profession,” the letter said.
Some observers predict that — even if the ABA continues to hold off on this particular approach to reform — pressure will continue to grow to prevent law schools from admitting students who can’t pass bar exams.
Tammi Rice, vice president, Kaplan Bar Review, said via email that the push for change “came from a sense that some law schools are letting too many lower achieving applicants in. In fact, over the past year, bar passage rates in many parts of the country are at record lows. This has left thousands of law school graduates mired in debt, with the inability to practice law.”
She added: “Arguably one of the most important responsibilities of a law school is to help its students succeed on the bar exam. Keep in mind that all of the law schools that have recently shuttered or are on the verge of closing down have something in common: a low bar passage rate. This is an important statistic that potential law school students look at.”
The data back up Rice’s statement but also point to the impact on efforts to diversify the legal profession.
Consider the law school of Whittier College, which in 2017 announced that it was closing the law school.
Whittier is in California so those planning to work in the state had to meet the state’s high bar passage standards. Just 22 percent of its students taking the California bar examination for the first time in July 2016 passed. That was almost 40 percentage points below the passage rate across all of the state’s ABA-accredited institutions. Minority students made up almost 60 percent of Whittier Law School’s enrollment — meaning that it was a far more diverse institution than most law schools.