Hot on the heels of my report on Elon University School of Law's much-improved performance on the N.C. bar exam comes this latest data dump from the American Bar Association: the two-year bar passage rates for every accredited U.S. law school.
The ABA's ultimate pass rate is the percentage of law school graduates who passed a bar exam within two years of leaving school. The ABA says it wants the public to know if law schools are producing graduates who can get a degree, pass the bar exam and be licensed to practice law, which is pretty much the point of going to law school, especially if someone's borrowing a ton of money to go. So the ABA published ultimate pass rates for the first time last year. The comprehensive numbers released last week are for the class of 2016.
Nationally, the ultimate pass rate for all schools was basically unchanged — 88.49 percent for 2015 grads, 88.57 percent for the class of 2016. That number might dip in future years: The ABA also reported that bar passage rates for first-time test-takers fell by more than two points, from 77.3 percent in 2017 to 74.8 percent last year. The ABA Journal has more.
Here are the ultimate bar passage rates for 2016 graduates of North Carolina's six law schools, with the number of test-takers in parentheses:
Wake Forest (171): 94.7 percent
Campbell (103): 94.2 percent
Duke (214): 93.9 percent
UNC-Chapel Hill (225): 80.9 percent
N.C. Central (157): 80.25 percent
Elon (83): 66.3 percent
(To see scores for all law schools for 2015 and 2016, click here and scroll down to "Bar passage data.")
Most of the N.C. law school scores are about the same or a little lower than a year ago. The one big change was at Elon Law, which saw a 20-point swing from its 2015 class, which had an ultimate pass rate of 87.1 percent.
Elon Law had a rough couple of years as it transitioned into its new 2.5 year program, and that struggle could show up on next year’s annual ABA report as well. Only 55 percent of Elon Law's December 2017 graduates passed the bar on their first try.
But Elon Law seems to have found its footing. As I reported last week, 70 percent of its class of 2018 passed the N.C. bar in February. When scores from other states come in, Elon Law figures that close to 80 percent of its most recent graduating class will have passed the bar the first time out. That bodes well for Elon Law's ultimate pass rate a couple of Aprils from now.
The ABA says the ultimate bar pass rates don't factor into accreditation, and that's true for now. But there has been a movement to require 75 percent of a law school's graduates to pass the bar within two years of leaving school. In January, the ABA for the second time rejected a plan that would do just that. (The current standard requires 75 percent passage over several years, but this ABA Journal story notes that there are "various ways to meet its current requirements.") The strongest opposition to this tougher standard came from law schools in California (where the bar exam is brutal) and from schools with large numbers of minority students.
Here’s Inside Higher Ed on the standards debate:
“Some observers predict that — even if the ABA continues to hold off on this particular approach to reform — pressure will continue to grow to prevent law schools from admitting students who can't pass bar exams.
“Tammi Rice, vice president (of) Kaplan Bar Review, said via email that the push for change 'came from a sense that some law schools are letting too many lower achieving applicants in. In fact, over the past year, bar passage rates in many parts of the country are at record lows. This has left thousands of law school graduates mired in debt, with the inability to practice law.’
“She added: ‘Arguably one of the most important responsibilities of a law school is to help its students succeed on the bar exam. Keep in mind that all of the law schools that have recently shuttered or are on the verge of closing down have something in common: a low bar passage rate. This is an important statistic that potential law school students look at.’”
As always, this is something to watch.
Update, 5:15 p.m. Wednesday: Speaking of law schools, Wake Forest Law has a new dean. It's Jane Aiken, currently at Georgetown Law in D.C.