Bar Exam: ‘Russian Roulette’?

by Nathan Allen on

Party after the bar

In the past few weeks, bar exam results from states have been pouring in. And the results are…not great.  At best, they are a weird anomaly of significantly lower scores that law school deans and faculty may laugh about in five years. At worst, they are the beginning of a trend where less qualified attorneys are  being pumped out of schools. Regardless, a discussion has begun. An exchange of fighting words, that is.

The vernacular war began on October 23, perhaps inadvertently, when Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), sent a memo to all law school deans in America. The NCBE is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that prepares the widely used standardized portion of the exam. In the memo, Moeser states the July results were “a matter of concern” for the NCBE and this year’s cohort were “less able” than the class of 2013. Word bombs.

The memo goes on to say the drastic declines were not the result of a changed or more difficult exam. The students simply weren’t ready. Many deans did not take kindly to the finger pointing. One dean decided to write Moeser a letter of his own. Nick Allard, dean of the Brooklyn School of Law sent a heated letter on November 10. Allard opens his letter by requesting an explanation of the original memo, an explanation for the drop in test scores, and an apology to the 2014 graduates.

“When that letter came, it got my Irish up and I’m not even Irish,” Allard says. “Saying my students are ‘less able’ is preposterous. It is false. She (Moeser) knows nothing about my students.”


Allard not only used the opportunity to question the results and motivations of the NCBE, but also the bar exam in general. And he is not alone. A letter drafted by Kathryn R.L. Rand, dean of the University of North Dakota Law School and signed by 79 other deans, was sent to Moeser on November 25 again requesting an explanation of results. At the very minimum, a conversation on the integrity and validity of the bar exam has begun amongst law school deans.

“Let’s take a step back,” Allard says. “Why do we have a bar exam? The purpose is there needs to be a method to license the people who will serve the public. It should be a demanding standard. But it should also be a consistent one.”

Allard says the biggest problem is the disconnect between what the ABA says law schools must teach and what is actually tested on bar exam.

“There are always large swings,” Allard says. “Students study really hard, earn their JDs, pay a lot of money and then have to prepare to play Russian roulette with an exam that is unpredictable and erratic at best.”


Allard thinks the law community can do better. And the first step, according to Allard, is to focus the bar on what is actually taught in law school when it is taught. An example is testing mandatory core curriculum from the first year immediately preceeding the year. The result could be breaking up the qualifying exercises to one each year to rid of the current do-or-die situation.

This is a dire time to have this conversation as law school applications continue to decrease (34% from 2010 to this past fall), says Allard.

“Right now we are arbitrarily denying motivated, talented people the ability to become lawyers,” Allard says. “Now why does this matter?  Why should anyone care? The short answer is that America needs more qualified, motivated, and energetic new lawyers to be peacemakers, freedom fighters, architects of economic opportunity, and champions of social and economic justice.”

The conversation for change has started and now Allard and the 79 other deans who signed the letter to NCBE are waiting for answers. Will they get them and where will it lead?

Bar results compared to 2013 (after reports from 34 states).

StatePoint Change2013 Results2014 Results
Idaho-1580% passage65% passage
Tennessee-1278% passage66% passage
Texas-1182% passage71% passage
Iowa-1192% passage81% passage
Oregon-1075% passage65% passage
Delaware-972% passage63% passage
Minnesota-988% passage79% passage
Nevada-966% passage57% passage
District of Columbia-847% passage39% passage
Arizona-876% passage68% passage
Washington-885% passage77% passage
Indiana-876% passage68% passage
California-756% passage49% passage
Virginia-775% passage68% passage
South Carolina-677% passage71% passage
Massachusetts-682% passage76% passage
Georgia-680% passage74% passage
Vermont-672% passage66% passage
Alabama-671% passage65% passage
Ohio-582% passage77% passage
New York-469% passage65% passage
New Jersey-479% passage75% passage
Missouri-489% passage85% passage
Colorado-479% passage75% passage
Alaska-368% passage65% passage
Oklahoma-382% passage79% passage
Pennsylvania-177% passage76% passage
North Carolina-163% passage62% passage
Kentucky076% passage76% passage
Michigan+162% passage63% passage
Florida+171% passage72% passage
Connecticut+374% passage77% passage
New Mexico+381% passage84% passage
Louisiana+1753% passage70% passage

Source: Excess of Democracy


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