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New bar passage rules await law schools in 2013

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Law schools wishing to maintain their California accreditation no doubt have a resolution this year: keeping up and improving their graduates’ bar passage rates.

Last month, the State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners voted to adopt changes to its guidelines for accredited law schools to specify that they must maintain a cumulative bar examination rate of at least 40 percent in order to keep their status. The new guidelines became effective Jan. 1, although law schools won’t have to report whether they meet the requirement until November when annual compliance reports are due.

Sean McCoy, chair of the committee, said the change was necessary to help clarify some of the standards used to judge law schools’ curriculum.

“Prior to this change, the version of the accreditation rules and guidelines stated that the cumulative success on the bar exam by graduates from a California accredited law school was a factor the committee considered in evaluating the quality of a school's legal education program,” McCoy wrote in an email. “However, the guidelines did not establish a quantitative percentage or other definition of ‘cumulative success,’ or specify a time period that would be used to measure that ‘cumulative success.’ ”

Under the new guidelines, law schools’ bar passage rates will be tabulated yearly as a percentage based on the number of students who have graduated within the past five years and have taken and passed one of 10 administrations of the bar exam. That figure will then be divided by the number of graduates during that five-year period who have taken any of those exams.

Schools that do not meet the requirement when they file their reports later this year will receive a notice of non-compliance. Beginning in 2016, those that fall below the minimum cumulative bar passage rate will be placed on probation and could ultimately lose their accreditation if they don’t comply with the requirements by the end of the following year.

Although most California-accredited law schools currently meet the 40-percent mandate, the new accreditation standard and guidelines haven’t been entirely well-received.

During the most recent public comment period before the committee approved the change, Southern California Institute of Law Dean Stanislaus Pulle called it “draconian.” In a letter co-written with Loyola Law School professor Christopher May and retired California Court of Appeal Justice Elizabeth Baron, Pulle said it unfairly penalizes California accredited schools. These students tend to work while enrolled and can’t afford to take time off to study for the bar exam, they wrote, unlike those who attend higher-tier schools accredited by the American Bar Association.

“To judge the value of a legal education based solely on whether a person one day becomes a member of the bar is deeply shortsighted,” the letter read. “As those who have attended law school will attest to, a legal education teaches us to think differently, to view the world from multiple perspectives, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and to become better attuned to the world around us.”

Laurel Fielden, a law school graduate, offered similar sentiments, calling the change” excessive.”

“Although the interest of consumer responsibility is a just cause, I think it fails to take into consideration the extensive variations in demographics and desires of graduates who attend [California-accredited law] schools,” she wrote.

But McCoy said the new rules will make it easier to gauge the quality of legal education programs, noting that as the guidelines were written, they “simply did not provide the schools with adequate notice of any meaningful standard.

“The new guideline remedies that problem,” he wrote.