Law schools with accreditation issues see bar exam improvement, but will they hit 75% pass rate?
The mean scaled score for the July 2019 multistate bar exam increased this year, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, and many states, including New York and California, saw pass rates go up.
But for a small number of schools found to be out of compliance with an ABA accreditation admissions standard, some have concerns that even with bar pass rate improvements, they still may not meet a new standard that requires pass rates of at least 75% for graduates who took a bar exam in the past two years. The ABA will determine whether a school meets the standard based on its ultimate bar passage rates—which focus on how its graduates fared on bar exams in all jurisdictions over a two-year period.
Standard 316 was revised in May 2019, and 2020 will be the first year that the council of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar determines compliance with the revision. That will be based on ultimate bar pass rates for 2017 graduates, who have had two years to take and pass a bar, says Jennifer Reiber, the interim dean at Florida Coastal School of Law.
In 2017 her school received public notice for falling out of compliance with Standard 501, which requires that schools only admit candidates who appear capable of completing law school and passing a bar exam.
Florida Coastal is a for-profit school owned by InfiLaw, and it is in the process of seeking ABA approval to convert to a nonprofit school. Besides Standard 501(b) and Interpretation 501-1, the law school was also found to be out of and then back into compliance with Standard 301(a), which requires that law schools prepare students to graduate and pass a bar exam, and Standard 309(b), which addresses academic support.
The school was found to be back in compliance in May 2019.
Florida Coastal’s first-time pass rate for the July 2019 Florida bar was 71%, compared to 62.5% in July 2018. Its ultimate bar passage rate for last year, which is based on 2016 graduates, is 56.76%, according to ABA data.
This year, ultimate bar passage rates will be based on people who graduated in 2017, and have had two years to take and pass a bar exam.
“We have concerns about 2017,” Reiber says “We are unique in that we were already found to be out of compliance with 501 and put on remedial action based on 2016 and 2017 bar results. If they do this new look back, we run the risk of being potentially penalized twice.”
Not meeting the new bar pass standard triggers public notice, and schools will have two years to come into compliance, according to a guidance memo from Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. Schools can request additional time, according to the memo, and relevant factors include “a clear trend of improvement” in bar passage rates, demonstrated effectiveness of academic support and law school efforts to provide broader access to legal education, while maintaining “academic rigor.”
Based on the memo, it appears that law schools with ultimate bar passage rates below 75% should collect sufficient data to demonstrate steps taken to come into compliance with the standard, Sara Berman, director of programs for academic and bar success with the AccessLex Institute, told the ABA Journal.
“The school will want to identify specific reasons why it is not yet in compliance. And, the dean will want to speak with the ABA directly about the process of demonstrating compliance or establishing good cause for an extension of time to return into compliance,” Berman wrote in an email.
Peter Goplerud, the president of Florida Coastal, estimates that between two and three other law schools might be in a similar situation to his. Between May 2017 and August 2019, 10 law schools were found to be out of compliance with Standard 501(b), the ABA admissions standard, and four were later found to be back in compliance. (Arizona Summit Law School was also found out of compliance with the standard in March 2017, but the school is set to close next year.)
|School||Back in compliance?||Ultimate bar pass rate for Class of ‘16|
|Duncan School of Law - Lincoln Memorial University||November 2018||93.75%|
|Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law||No||87.41%|
|North Carolina Central University School of Law||June 2018||80.25%|
|Golden Gate University School of Law||No||74%|
|University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law||No||71.43%|
|Appalachian School of Law||No||69.77%|
|Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School||March 2018||69.02%|
|Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School||No||68.60%|
|Florida Coastal School of Law||May 2019||64.54%|
|Thomas Jefferson School of Law||No||63.83%|
Out of the four schools later found to be back in compliance, only Florida Coastal and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School are in states that release bar exam pass rates by school, and the Michigan data will not be available until the end of November, according to Maribeth D. Graff, executive director of the Michigan Board of Law Examiners. According to data from the Michigan Board of Law Examiners, Cooley Law’s first-time bar passage rate for the July 2018 Michigan bar exam was 46%. Cooley Law’s ultimate bar passage rate for 2016 graduates was 69.02%, according to ABA data.
Also among the four schools recently found out of and back into compliance with the admissions standard are North Carolina Central University School of Law and Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law, which is in Tennessee. Neither North Carolina or Tennessee make public bar passage rates by school.
According to information shared by the school’s communications department, NCCU’s first-time pass rate for the July 2019 North Carolina bar exam was 73.91%, compared to 77% in July 2018. The law school’s ultimate bar pass rate for 2016 graduates was 80.25%, according to ABA data. The law school was found to be out of compliance with Standards 501(b) and Interpretation 501-1 in January 2018. By June 2018, it was found that the law school had taken “concrete steps” to demonstrate compliance with the standards.
At Duncan School of Law which received full ABA approval in March 2019, the class of 2016’s ultimate bar passage rate was 93.75%, according to ABA data. Its 2018 ABA first-time bar passage rate was 74.47%. The law school in April 2018 received public notice about being out of compliance with Standards 501(a) and 501(b), and Interpretations 501-1, 501-2 and 501-3. It was found to be in “substantial compliance” with the standards in November 2018.
Other law schools cited for noncompliance with the admissions standard include San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law. It was placed on probation by the ABA in November 2017, and approval was withdrawn in June 2019. The school appealed, and the council of the section rejected that appeal Thursday.
Thomas Jefferson must now submit for the council’s review a teach-out plan, which ensures that its current students who want to finish law school graduate from an ABA-accredited program. The school will remain open as a non-ABA accredited law school, with California accreditation. New students will be admitted starting in the summer 2020 academic year, according to a statement from the law school.
California, which had an overall pass rate of 50.1% for its July 2019 state bar exam, plans to publish bar pass rates of the state’s law schools in mid-December, according to its communications department. The July 2018 California bar first-time bar passage rate for Thomas Jefferson was 25%, according to state bar data. The law school’s ultimate bar pass rate for 2016 graduates is 63.83%, according to ABA data.
Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco in April 2018 received public notice that it was not in compliance with the admissions standard. Its California bar first-time bar pass rate was 34% in 2018. The law school’s ultimate bar passage rate for 2016 graduates was 74%, according to ABA data. Anthony Niedwiecki, Golden Gate’s law dean, told the ABA Journal that he doesn’t yet know the school’s first-time pass rate for the July 2019 California bar exam, but he’s confident that its ABA ultimate bar passage rate for 2017 graduates will be at least 75%.
Virginia’s Appalachian School of Law in May 2017 received notice of noncompliance with Standards 301(a) and 501(a) and 501(b). According to data from the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, its first-time pass rate for the July 2019 Virginia bar exam was 55.56%, compared to 44.44% in 2018. Its ultimate bar passage rate for 2016 graduates is 69.77%, according to ABA data. Appalachian School of Law Dean Elizabeth A. McClanahan says her school meets and exceeds ABA Standard 316 for the class of 2017. “Additionally, we only need two passing scores from the 2018 class in order to be in compliance.”
Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in June 2017 was found to be out of compliance with Standards 501(b), Interpretations 501-1 and 501-2, as well as Standards 301(a) and 309(b). Its July 2019 Texas bar exam pass rate for first-time test takers was 57.64%, according to data from Texas Board of Law Examiners.The school’s Texas first-time pass rate for July 2018 was 44.52%. However, the law school’s ultimate bar pass rate for the class of 2016 was 87.41%, according to ABA data.
Atlanta’s John Marshall School of Law, which in October 2017 received notice of being out of compliance with Standards 301(a), 309(b), 501(a), 501(b) and Interpretation 501-1, was placed on probation by the council in December 2018. Its first-time pass rate for the July 2019 Georgia bar exam is 66.3%, according to data from the state supreme court, compared to 40.4% in 2018. For the class of 2016, its ultimate bar passage rate was 68.6%, according to ABA data.
The University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, which in August 2019 was found to be out of compliance with Standard 501(b) and Interpretation 501-1, is in a jurisdiction that does not release bar passage rates by school. According to ABA data, the law school’s ultimate bar passage rate for 2018 is 71.43%, and its first-time bar pass rate for 2018 was 45.07%.
Updated at 2:35 p.m. with information from the ABA Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar’s Thursday meeting; last updated Nov. 22 to include statement from Thomas Jefferson School of Law.