Arizona Summit Law School seeks university affiliation, requires mock bar exam passage
Updated: The Arizona Summit Law School is taking a new step in a bid to bolster its reputation.
The school plans to partner with a major university, Above the Law reports.
Summit president Don Lively says in a press release that the school is “negotiating with a few universities that share our mission and values.” Among other things, the affiliation will strengthen Summit’s reputation, make its program more affordable and reduce tuition dependence, according to Lively.
The school is also taking some steps to improve its first-time bar pass rate. Only 30.6 percent of first-time test takers from the law school passed the July 2015 bar exam, and only 38.1 percent of first-timers passed in February 2016.
One of the steps, noted in the press release, is a program that targets students who are members of historically or economically disadvantaged groups. It offers full scholarships plus $5,000 in living expenses to students with an LSAT score of 150 or above.
Above the Law reports on a second step being taken by the school.
The blog obtained an email informing students that beginning in May 2017, they will have to pass a mock bar exam as a graduation requirement. The email signed by Dean Shirley Mays strongly encourages students to take the school’s bar preparation class and notes that it can be taken for credit.
Mays and Lively responded to the ABA Journal’s questions by email. Here is an edited version of their responses.
Q. How soon do you expect to announce the affiliation? Can you provide any hints about the schools you are speaking with?
Lively: Thanks for your interest in our affiliation plans. At this time, we are not in a position to announce the institutions with whom we are meeting.
Q. The press released talked about the positive aspects of an affiliation. Are there any negatives?
Lively: With respect to any negatives, it is hard to discern any. Even if we could identify one, I think it would be outweighed by the many positives (I.e., enhanced reputation, less tuition-dependent, potential for lower tuition, stronger faculty development and student support, and the synergies of being in a multidisciplinary environment).
One other benefit worth noting is that this transition will draw attention to our school in a way that enables persons to make a fully informed judgment about who we are. Many do not know that we were incubated in traditional legal education by established legal educators concerned about the growing distance of law schools from the legal profession and by priorities (rankings orientation) that perpetuated the exclusion of historically disadvantaged minorities from legal education and the legal profession. All data indicate diversity remains static in the nation’s least diverse profession (i.e., the legal profession), even as the nation’s diversity escalates rapidly.
Some 20 years ago, I could not find a university that either had the resources or the interest in supporting a mission like ours and thus turned to private equity (which interestingly enough is demonstrating its value in addressing social problems, needs in education and health care in third world countries where governments and NGOs have failed). Private capital became the resource for starting Florida Coastal School of Law, the nation’s first fully approved proprietary law school. When less-informed people think or speak of our schools, they often tend to focus upon form rather than function (and thus overlook our founding purpose and—among other things—being 148 percent more diverse than the average of all other law schools).
Not surprisingly, we are looking at the forthcoming university affiliation as a milestone moment that not only will enhance our mission capability, but enable persons to have a greater appreciation of what brought us into existence as an institution for real social utility.
Q. Next, some questions about the plan to require students to pass a mock bar exam in order to graduate. What happens if a student fails the mock bar exam? How many chances will students get to take the mock exam and pass? And is there a time limit? Could someone who is supposed to graduate in 2017 still take the mock exam in 2020, for example? And will students have to pay to take the mock bar exam?
Mays: As part of a broader plan to prepare our graduates for success on the bar exam, we have implemented a competency-based graduation requirement for our students. Our school was founded by legal educators committed to diversifying legal education and the legal profession. In so doing, we recognized that many of our students are in “catch-up” mode, and would need more time and attention to pass the bar exam. Additional aspects of our overall plan for bar pass success for our students include implementation of our Legal Residency Program (a one-year program that combines bar study with legal work experience); enhancing our academic support program; and creating student-support teams for early identification and assistance of students needing aid.
The competency-based requirement necessitates that students pass a modified mock bar exam prior to graduation. Note that the “passing” score will not be set at the level required on the actual bar exam but rather, based on extensive data, what we believe will give students a good chance of passing when they reach the bar exam. We recognize graduates will have at least two months of intensive bar preparation post-graduation. They can take the mock exam three times each term beginning in January 2017. Students can continue to take the mock exam until they pass. Given the data that we have, it is exceptionally unlikely that a student would not be able to pass the exam after one or two semesters. In any event, we are committed to supporting all of our students until they are successful, and will invite them to participate in innovative pre- and post-graduate bar support programs.
Students do not have to pay to take the mock exam, but they are limited to taking the mock exam while they are a student. There wouldn’t likely be an instance of a 2017 graduate taking the mock exam in 2020.
Interestingly, a significant driver of our declining bar-pass rates has been an increase in our transfer attrition to other law schools. A large percentage of our best students are courted by higher-ranked law schools after they complete their first year of law school. These are students those high-ranked law schools would not admit into their first-year classes because reporting their entering credentials would cause those schools to lose their high rankings. Because the ABA does not require these law schools to report the LSAT scores of the transfer students, higher-ranked law schools invite students they would not initially admit to join their second-year classes. Had these transfer students remained at our law school, our bar pass rates would be 12 percent to 16 percent higher.
Please keep in mind that prior to Arizona Summit Law School opening its doors, just 8 percent of the state’s attorneys were underrepresented minorities, compared to a state population of 40 percent. The most recently reported graduating classes from [Arizona State University] and [the University of Arizona] are just 10 to 15 percent underrepresented minorities, compared to 45 to 50 percent for ASLS. Unfortunately, our critics have no solution to these structural problems other than to throw stones at things they don’t understand or care to understand. We’re proud of our graduates and the success they’ve had.
Q. Is this requirement aimed at meeting ABA requirements?
Mays: The ABA uses several measures to determine compliance with its bar pass standards. One is that our first-time pass rate must be within 15 percent of the state average bar pass rate. We currently do not meet that standard. The other is that the ultimate bar pass rate of our school must be at least 75 percent. Our ultimate bar pass rates are within the acceptable range.
Moreover, we know first-time bar pass rates are not the full measure of success. For minority graduates between 2011 and 2013, just 44 percent passed the bar exam on their first attempt. Since then, using data from the careful tracking of our graduates required by the ABA, 75 to 80 percent have ultimately passed the bar exam and are employed in legal or professional positions. In nearly all cases, these jobs are paying much greater salaries than what the graduates were making before law school.
In the past, we’ve received criticism for some of our programs. If fulfilling our mission of helping to diversify the legal profession in Arizona and elsewhere requires an extra semester of support for some students—at no additional tuition or fees and with significant support and investment from ASLS—then so be it. (Source: https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/improving-judicial-diversity ). We will continue to seek ways to break down barriers and produce lawyers who will change the face of the legal profession.
Updated on Aug. 18 to add comments from Mays and Lively.