Results from Bar Exam Turn Heads for Wrong Reasons

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Posted December 3, 2015

The scores from the July 2015 Mississippi bar exam are in, and the results are turning the heads of more than just the individuals who failed it.

The Mississippi Board of Bar Admissions initially released the results last in September, and law school graduates in Mississippi suddenly jumped to the top of a national list for reasons less deserving than others.

As Pepperdine University School of Law Assistant Professor Derek Muller reported on his blog “Excess of Democracy” at the time, only 51% of test takers had received a passing score. For a moment, it looked like the bar passage rate in Mississippi had sunk a dramatic 27 points compared to the relatively robust 78% it had been the previous year in July 2014, according to Muller.

But at least for now, the story proved to have somewhat of a happier ending. Earlier in November, the Mississippi Board of Bar Admissions released an updated list of results from the July 2015 exam. This time the news was better: 70.2% of test takers received a passing score.

Although the numbers are better, they continue to reflect a decrease when compared to the previous year in July 2014. For what it is worth, disappointed would-be Mississippi lawyers who failed the bar are not alone in this regard. The decline in the bar passage rate in Mississippi from July 2014 to July 2015 is part of a recent national trend—one that might not be over if some critics are correct.

For example, Muller notes on his blog that compared to July 2014, results from the July 2015 bar exam also fell in twenty other the following states: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, AL, CO, CT, FL, GA,Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North LA, KS, MO, MT, NM, NY, NC, Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. OK, OR, PA, TN, VT, WA, WV, and WI. The national trend towards lower passage rates on state bar exams—and any controversy surrounding it—started even before then.

Back in August 2015, Natalie Kitroeff for BloombergBusiness reported on the fallout that had occurred the previous year after the National Conference of Bar Examiners (“NCBE”) released results for the multiple-choice section of the July 2014 bar exam. In her article “Article Lawyers Getting Dumber?” Kitroeff explained scores on the multiple-choice part of the bar exam hit their biggest annual drop in the entire history of the test from July 2013 to July 2014.

According to Kitroeff, the fallout began when NCBE President Erica Moeser wrote law school deans and said students who sat for the July 2014 bar exam comprised a less-able group when compared to those who previously took the test in July 2013.

As Kitroeff explained, a furious debate ensued: some blamed the bar exam; a few pointed to a software malfunction; and others said graduating law students were less prepared.

At one point, the recent July 2015 bar results in Mississippi and elsewhere might have had the potential to prove one or more of them right once and for all. Yet the only thing they have made clear since then is that no one still seems to agree on what the problem is in the first place.

Consider a recent study by Law School Transparency. According to the nonprofit organization, overall law school enrollment is down 28% since 2010. As a result, the study contends a growing budget crunch is spreading across law schools and providing an appetite for incoming students with lower average LSATs and GPAs. The net effect, according to the study, is that “many law schools are enrolling students who face substantial risk of failing the bar exam to keep their doors open.”

Studies like the recent one from Law School Transparency seem to lean in favor of Moeser’s side of the debate. In September 2015, writing a follow-up piece titled “Bar Exam Scores Drop to Their Lowest Point in Decades,” Kitroeff quotes Moeser in Bloomberg Business as saying the fact the average score on the multiple-choice portion of the July 2015 bar exam fell to the lowest it has been since 1988 was not unexpected and that law schools had been admitting less qualified students. On the other hand, the same article shows indications that the disagreement lingers; another source in it cites the addition of a new section on civil procedure to the bar exam as one explanation for the drop in test scores from July 2014 to July 2015.

There is no reason to think that results from the February 2016 Mississippi bar exam or any other one after that are likely to settle the score once and for all. But the fact the debate exists at all does present an opportunity for all members of the bar to reflect on important questions about the status and condition of the legal profession as whole in the effort to make it a better one for the lawyers of today and for the lawyers of tomorrow.