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Proposal would link law school accreditation to exam pass rates

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Concerned that current guidelines don't hold law schools to clear enough standards, the State Bar could require schools to maintain a minimum bar exam passage rate to keep their California accreditation.

Proposed rules and guidelines being circulated for public comment would require a 50 percent, cumulative pass rate over a five-year period. Comments will be accepted until Sept. 17 and the Committee of Bar Examiners will consider the proposal at its October meeting.

Current guidelines for granting state accreditation to law schools look at multiple factors including “the cumulative success of the law school's graduates on the California Bar examination.” Since the current rules and guidelines were adopted in 2009, however, “cumulative success” has never been defined and there has been no suggested timeline for gauging that success, according to Gayle Murphy, senior director for admissions.

“You have to start somewhere and as an accredited school you should have to jump over a higher hurdle,” Murphy told the Board of Trustees’ Regulation, Admissions and Discipline Oversight Committee at its recent meeting. The Board of Trustees would have final say on the proposal in November.

Murphy said she expects most of the 17 California-accredited law schools will meet the proposed bar passage requirement by 2015. Even so, some deans say the proposal is unfair because it would retroactively hold schools responsible for pass rates that pre-date the changes.

Lincoln Law School of San Jose Dean Joseph Moless Jr. said his problems with the proposal also include the fact that there seems to be no justification as to why the 50-percent figure was chosen.

“It’s one thing to regulate, but regulate has to have a rational nexus,” he said.

Southern California Institute of Law Dean Stanislaus Pulle, who together with Moless and former State Bar president Anthony Capozzi submitted written opposition to the proposal, said he is particularly concerned the change will stifle innovation, forcing law schools to act like glorified bar review courses.

“In my opinion, the worst thing is, it is transforming the way in which we instruct,” Pulle said. “It is sad what is occurring.”

Basil G. Dezes, dean of the University of West Los Angeles School of Law who chairs a group advising the Committee of Bar Examiners, said the changes are intended to increase public protection and clear up any ambiguities about what is expected of bar-approved schools.

Dezes said his committee’s goal has been to address both the Committee of Bar Examiners’ “legitimate” concerns and “accommodate the needs of the California accredited schools and their students who many not otherwise be able to go to law school.”

While not everyone favors the changes, the fact that the proposal seeks to measure cumulative performance on the exam over a five-year period could weigh heavily in accredited schools' favor.

Typically, attendees of schools accredited by the American Bar Association, which has stricter standards, fare better on the bar exam than those from California-accredited schools. According to State Bar figures, only 33 percent of graduates from California accredited schools passed the February 2012 exam on their first try while roughly 62 percent from California-based ABA approved schools did. The proposal would look at the average pass rate of test takers who have taken and passed one of the ten administrations of the exam in the five years following graduation.

If approved, the bar passage requirement would not fully go into effect until fall of 2015. However, law schools would have to meet a 45-percent passage standard by fall of 2013 and again in 2014.

A forum to discuss the proposal has been set for 2 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23, in San Francisco. Comments may be emailed to Kim Wong.