At graduation, speakers are fond of saying, “This is just the beginning of your education.” At law school, that maxim is actually a warning. When you walk the stage, you’re literally taking a diploma with one hand – and a BARBRI passcode with the other. After three years of toiling over torts and trade secrets, you still have one obstacle to face: the bar exam.
Once the pomp-and-circumstance ends, you’ll find MBAs bopping around Barcelona and Sydney before they start their first job. But law grads? They’re hunched over their laptops every evening, cramming black letter law and Popeye’s chicken in equal measure. After graduation, they live in their head, in a perpetual state of déjà vu. They picture worst case scenarios. And well-wishers only make it worse. “Don’t worry,” they say. “You graduated in the top 25%. You couldn’t possibly fail the bar.”
If you do, there is that stigma (short-term, at least). Apparently, you were the imposter who bluffed his way through three years of law school. So you sleep four hours a night – and crash on Sundays. You gain five pounds one week – and lose it the following week. You play jock rock anthems to pump yourself up to study. And then seethe, shout, or sob after you fail yet another practice test. At one point, you’ll throw up your hands and quit – and binge watch old episodes of Lost. And the next day, you’ll come back and start over.
AN IMPERFECT RITE OF PASSAGE
In the end, the bar exam is more than a rite of passage or stamp of approval. When you sit for the bar, you’re finishing a journey. And the final steps are always the toughest.
Of course, such elegaics only embolden bar exam critics. To them, the bar is an irrelevant vestige of a world long past. Lawyers don’t memorize rules and precedents anyone, they say. They research them on Lexis. Isn’t good lawyering really about managing relationships and mastering processes – the backroom give-and-take where the real action happens? And aren’t facts framed and acts applied to narrow and unique circumstances? How can any standardized test possibly measure the nuances that truly good lawyering?
These are all valid points, no doubt. Here’s reality: If you can’t pass, you can’t practice. That’s the rule (except in Wisconsin). Two centuries ago, aspiring barristers learned the law apprenticing under a judge or practicing lawyer, no different than carpenters and printers. Although the law is more art than trade these days, the bar certifies that a lawyer meets the bare minimum – and beholden to a code.
And it’s a way to hold schools accountable for outcomes. In fact, you could view bar passage as n tool to measure the effectiveness of each school’s curriculum and teaching. Mind you, the bar makes for a far-from-perfect correlation. L14 schools generally accept students with higher LSATs and GPAs, giving them an inherent advantage over lower-ranked programs. Not to mention, some states, such as California and New York, are known for more rigorous exams than states like Iowa and South Dakota. If you’re really ambitious, you could argue that high bar passage rates could indicate that schools have stronger internal prep programs – or are teaching to the test – for that matter.
ARE BAR RESULTS A REFLECTION OF TEACHING QUALITY?
That’s all true. In fact, it is nearly impossible to judge a graduating class until they’ve worked for 10-20 years. By then, what criteria can you use to measure them? Do you exalt certain schools for producing outliers like judges, congressmen, corporate executives, and correspondents? Is wealth the best marker for a good education? In an era marked by fewer jobs and lower pay for attorneys, should we lower expectations and simply quantify success by employment rates and debt payoffs (or happiness for that matter)?
Of course, prospective law students can’t wait for the future. And the answers would all be lagging indicators, anyway. So that takes us back to bar passage. Take Vanderbilt, whose alumni include Texas Governor Greg Abbott and actor-turned-Senator Fred Thompson. According to U.S. News & World Report, Vanderbilt produced a 100% bar passage rate among first-time test takes during the winter and summer of 2013. An anomaly? Not quite. The year before, that number was 95.7%, still higher than the top law programs like Yale, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.
What does this mean? Maybe the Tennessee bar isn’t all that rigorous (2013 University of Tennessee grads, for example, produced a 94.3% bar passage rate). But it can also mean that Vanderbilt, where incoming freshmen average a 167 median LSAT and a 3.7 undergrad GPA, squeeze more out of their students than a program like Yale (where the corresponding numbers are 171 and 3.91 respectively).
A better example of this phenomenon is Baylor University. Ranked 56th by U.S. News, Baylor registered a 97.0% bar passage rate in 2013, 3.5% higher than 2012. Their incoming first years also averaged a 159 median LSAT and a 3.54 undergraduate GPA. Compare that to the University of Virginia, where 1Ls posted 169 and 3.85 respectively. Despite higher standards that attract a more academically accomplished class, Virginia’s bar passage rate was 3.5 points lower than Baylor. In other words, you could argue that Baylor teaching and curriculum elevated their class as a whole. And they did it despite the Texas Bar being a three day exercise. That’s a hallmark of teaching excellence.