‘At-Risk’ Law Students: A New Norm?

Law schools must balance the need to fill seats with maintaining academic excellence

Law schools must balance the need to fill seats with maintaining academic excellence

It’s been a little more than a year since Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), penned a letter to law school deans nationwide. Many in the legal community remember it. Quickly resorting to fighting words, she called the July 2014 bar exam takers “less able” than the July 2013 cohort. More than 75 law school deans responded with a saucy letter of their own asking for an investigation of the exam. A reality show-esque squabble ensued.

Bickering aside, there was growing concern from both sides on the state of legal education—even if they manifested in differing ways. Would the 2014 national average score of 141.5 (out of 200)—the lowest in decades—be a strange anomaly or a trend of less qualified law school graduates? After state bar results trickled in, the NCBE reported the July 2015 national bar average dropped another was 1.6 points to 139.9. In other words, the worst predictions were realized.

“This is the ‘new normal,’ and the new normal will be with us for a while,” Moeser wrote in a September Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) report that addressed the score.


On the surface, it’s easy to see the blame the decline on how schools are preparing students for the bar. But according to Moeser and a recently published report from the nonprofit Law School Transparency, it has less to do with what the students do in law school and more to do with whether or not they should even be there.

The robust and in-depth report states that in 2014, 74 of the 204 American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law schools admitted an incoming class in which at least a quarter of students were “at-risk” of failing the bar.

“Too many law schools are filling their entering classes with people who face serious risk of not passing the bar exam,” Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency and a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School, told The New York Times on Monday, Oct. 26th.