If you’ve been reading this space for some time, you might recall that Elon University School of Law graduates have struggled on the North Carolina bar exam, the big post-graduation hurdle that stands between them and a law career.
But here’s some good news from the latest bar exam cycle: 70 percent of Elon Law grads passed the N.C. bar on their first try in February. That’s the school’s best performance since 2015 and 30 points better than a year ago.
The school’s overall pass rate on the February bar was 64 percent. (That figure includes repeat test-takers; just 48 percent of Elon’s repeaters passed in February.) On the February exam, Elon finished above the state average for first-time and overall pass rates for graduates of N.C. law schools.
That’s a huge improvement over February 2018, when just 40 percent of Elon Law grads passed the N.C. bar on their first time. That poor performance set off some alarms at the downtown Greensboro law school, as nearly all of those first-timers were members of the first graduating class of Elon Law's completely revamped 2.5-year program.
In an interview last week, Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman told me three factors contributed to the much better showing this year:
• Elon Law added more people to its academic success office and last summer hired a new associate dean, Wendy Scott, to run it. Scott was the former dean at Mississippi College School of Law and a former associate dean at the N.C. Central and Tulane University law schools. Elon also revamped its bar prep program, which students take in their seventh and final trimester at the law school.
• The N.C. Board of Law Examiners in February offered the Uniform Bar Exam for the first time instead of its own mostly homemade text. About 30 states use the UBE; passing it potentially lets a lawyer practice in each state that uses this test. One section of the UBE in particular (as this Campbell Law Observer explainer put it) is “a test of real-life lawyering skills.” That helps Elon Law, Bierman said, because Elon’s 2.5-year program puts a lot of emphasis on giving its students real-world legal experience.
• Elon Law is starting to get a good handle on its unique new program. Most of the first-timers who sat for the February exam were part of just the second graduating class of the 2.5-year program. "We got better at our program ..." Bierman said. "As students ... and faculty have become more adapted to what we're doing, we are much better at doing what we do in preparing our students."
Bierman also told me he expects better news once results come in from other states. Elon Law grads who have taken the bar exam outside of North Carolina (which gives a notoriously hard test) have traditionally done pretty well. A year ago, 75 percent of the school’s first-time takers passed the bar outside North Carolina. Based on the early reports this year from elsewhere, Bierman said he expects close to 80 percent of the Elon Law class of 2018 to pass the bar somewhere on the first try.
"We're pretty happy about that," Bierman said. "Seventy percent shows a very strong, positive direction for what we're trying to accomplish."
P.S. A quick word about the February bar exam: Of North Carolina’s six law schools, Elon Law is the only one with significant numbers of first-time takers in February. That’s because Elon Law holds commencement in December — it’s a 2.5- year program, remember? — and the February test date is the closest one to graduation.
New graduates from Campbell, Duke, N.C. Central, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest typically sit for the bar in July. Any graduates of these schools who took the N.C. bar for the first time in February have been out of school for a while, in other words. And most people who take the bar in February are sitting for the test for at least the second time. So keep that in mind when you look at these N.C. bar exam passage rates for February:
Campbell: 67 percent for first-timers, 79 percent overall (the overall pass rates includes repeat test-takers)
Duke: 83 percent for first-timers, 87.5 percent overall
Elon: 70 percent for first-timers, 64 percent overall
N.C. Central: 73 percent for first-timers, 53 percent overall
UNC-Chapel Hill: 87.5 percent for first-timers, 90 percent overall
Wake Forest: 55.6 percent for first-timers, 76 percent overall
Charlotte Law School (which closed in 2017): 0 percent for first-timers, 22 percent overall
All North Carolina law school graduates (292 tested): 69 percent for first-timers, 63 percent overall
Out-of-state law school graduates: 74 percent for first-timers, 66 percent overall
All takers of the N.C. bar exam (520 tested): 72 percent for first-timers, 65 percent overall
The N.C. Board of Law Examiners doesn't publicly release bar exam passing rates. But it does publish a list of people who passed the February bar and met all other state licensing requirements. Congrats to all the new attorneys!