Arizona Summit offers stipend for at-risk grads to put off exam and get extra bar prep
A year ago, Kelly Blake was stressed out. The Arizona Summit Law School graduate was studying for the state bar examination and suspected her chance of passing was about 50 percent.
“A bar coach told me that if I was having doubts, there was this program coming up,” says Blake, referring to the school’s Legal Residency Program. To participate in it, Arizona Summit graduates would delay taking a bar exam; in exchange they got four months of specialized bar review courses, optional law clerk positions and a stipend of about $36,000.
The program’s lead instructor, Alan Mamood, tells the ABA Journal that the program is open to all Arizona Summit graduates planning to take a bar exam, but the school does not encourage it for those who appear ready for the test.
Blake decided to join the program. The January 2015 graduate and 35 other participants prepared for the February 2017 bar exam.
“I had studied all summer for the bar, and I wanted to take it. But I had not secured a job, and I have four children,” says Tracy Gillespie, another graduate in the pilot program. “It’s a great opportunity the school offers for those people who, for whatever reason, are not able to really get the full studying the first time around.”
But what may be a career saver for some law students has come under fire from some law school critics who see it as a way to change the bar-passage rates law schools are required to report under ABA accreditation standards. The cynical view is that money spent on the pilot program could be a cost of doing business for the law school, which has 279 students and charges $45,424 for annual, full-time tuition.
A for-profit law school that is part of the InfiLaw System, Arizona Summit had a bar-passage rate of 24.6 percent for its July 2016 first-time test takers.
In March, the school was placed on probation by the council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar; it will be required to take remedial actions. The council will examine the bar-pass rate for first-time test takers this February and July during a compliance hearing in November.
Donald Lively, the law school’s president, objects to accusations that his school’s Legal Residency Program is meant to be a tool to deceive people.
“No one is bought off. All we’re trying to do is come up with an innovative solution for what has been a very vexing problem,” Lively says. “We bring in students who are in catch-up mode. They’ve gone to schools in less advantaged communities, and many have not had the same level of quality education as people who grew up in more fortunate circumstances.”
From August to December, program participants attended lectures four days a week, focusing on writing and strategic approaches to multiple-choice questions. After class and on Fridays, they spent up to 20 hours a week clerking for various legal offices. Their stipend came from the law school, Lively says, not lawyers who benefited from the work. There was no cost to participants. The classes and clerking stopped in January so participants could devote themselves to bar study. All participants interviewed by the Journal opted for online bar review.
“I am feeling very optimistic,” Mamood says. “The level of growth the majority of students displayed from the beginning to end was substantial.”
It’s not uncommon for a law school to suggest that a student postpone a bar exam, if there’s a sense that he or she is not ready, say legal academics; but paying a stipend for it is novel.
ABA accreditation standards do not appear to prohibit the stipends; however, if a significant portion of a class participated in the program, it could raise questions about whether the institution was in compliance with Standard 501 (PDF), which states that schools should not admit people who don’t appear capable of completing its program and being admitted to the bar.
“Schools at the bottom tiers take more at-risk students, and it’s entirely possible you have difficulties trying to accomplish all of your goals in three years,” says University of Maryland professor Russell McClain, who directs the academic achievement program at the law school.
“It’s unquestionably the obligation of a law school to ensure that if you admit students, you give them the support that they need,” McClain says. “For students at risk, this could give them additional time to master the skills they need to become contributing members of the bar.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: A Profitable Delay? Arizona Summit offers stipend for at-risk grads to put off exam and get extra bar prep