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Understanding the 'Ultimate' Bar Passage Rate In Comparing Law Schools

Posted by Charles Sullivan on 2/6/19 8:10 AM
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Prospective law students have always been interested in the bar passage success rates of schools they’re considering attending. After all, while a law degree is a prerequisite to taking the bar almost everywhere, passing the bar is a prerequisite to actually practicing law in almost all states.

Fortunately, bar passage information, among a lot of other consumer information, is available not only on each school’s website but in one handy place provided by the ABA.  However, the statistics have gotten a bit more confusing recently with the advent of the “ultimate bar passage” metric. What’s with that?

               For years, law schools focused on “first time takers,” that is the success rate of those sitting for their first bar examination after graduation – usually in July but sometimes in February for mid-year graduates.  This is an important data point: no one wants to have to take the bar a second or third time. Not only does each sitting require money and time, but delaying a graduate’s ability to practice law can put a crimp in earnings and even have adverse effects on career prospects.

               But it remains true that failing the bar one time is not fatal to one’s aspirations to be an attorney. Some pretty famous people have failed the bar once only to succeed on subsequent attempts. Hillary Clinton, for one. And so some law schools pushed for an additional measure of success – “ultimate bar passage.”  The title is a little deceptive because it’s not really a measure of whether graduates ever pass. Rather, it’s defined as a bar passage by all graduates who sit for the bar within two years of graduation. So, for example, if Alum Alan graduates in May of 2017, takes the bar for the first time that July and fails it, he would still count as “ultimately” successful if he passed after a second, third, or even fourth sitting in July 2019.

               “Ultimate bar passage” is getting a lot of play in the media because the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education is proposing to include a minimum 75% ultimate bar passage requirement as part of its Standards. So that might well be a floor in the future. But whether or not that rule is adopted, most prospective law students will want to attend schools that are way above that number. Fortunately, there are a wide range of choices in most of the country.  (California has distinctive problems given the low bar success rate in that state for all those who sit).

               I won’t try to suggest a cut-off number for any given student on the ultimate bar passage rate – it’s too individual a decision. But I will say that, when comparing schools, ultimate bar passage is certainly a relevant consideration and, everything else being equal, a higher rate makes a school more attractive than a lower.

               I’d also suggest that, while ultimate bar passage is a useful data point, the more important statistic is first-time taker success rate. After all, passing the bar examination on the first go-round is far preferable than having to take the damn thing again.    

 Photo credit: Rick Kopstein / NY LAW JOURNAL

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