Surprise: MBE Scores Rise in 2016

August 31st, 2016 / By

Erica Moeser, President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, sent a memo to law school deans today. The memo reported the welcome, but surprising, news that the national mean score on the MBE was higher in July 2016 than in July 2015. Last year, the national mean was just 139.9. This year, it’s 140.3.

That’s a small increase, but it’s nonetheless noteworthy. LSAT scores for entering law students have been falling for several years. The drop between fall 2012 and fall 2013 was quite noticeable: Seventy percent of ABA-accredited law schools experienced a drop in the 25th percentile score of their entering class. At 19 schools, that score fell 3 points. At another five, it was 4 points.

LSAT scores correlate with MBE scores, so many observers expected July 2016 MBE scores to be lower than those recorded in 2015. Moeser, for example, has repeatedly stressed the link between LSAT scores and MBE ones. She recently declared: “What would surprise me is if LSAT scores dropped and bar pass rates didn’t go down.”

Moeser just received that surprise: Students who began law school in fall 2013 had lower LSAT scores than those who began a year earlier. The former students, however, beat the latter on the MBE after graduation.

So What Happened?

Unpacking this news will take more time and data. Moeser mentions in her memo that the mean MBE score increased in 22 jurisdictions, fell in 26, and remained stable in two. Teasing apart the jurisdictions will provide insights. School-specific results will be even more informative in exploring why the overall score rose.

For now, I offer four hypotheses in descending order of likelihood (from my perspective):

1. Schools improved preparation. Education makes a difference; law school isn’t simply a vegetative state that students endure between taking the LSAT and sitting for the bar exam. Schools that offer more one-on-one instruction and regular feedback can improve students’ mastery of just about any subject. Traditional legal education is woefully short on both feedback and one-on-one instruction, so there’s lots of room for improvement. If some schools improved their pedagogies, that would have enhanced bar performance–despite lower LSAT scores in the entering class.

2. Graduates cared more. Many professors have remarked that today’s law students are more committed than their predecessors to practicing law. Fewer college students wander into law school for want of a better alternative; the degree is expensive, and the job outlook is uncertain. The students who do enroll, as a result, really want to be lawyers.

Dedication and hard work matter when studying for the bar exam. It’s a grueling two months of study, requiring large amounts of tedious memorization and very little of intellectual interest. The graduate who really wants to be a prosecutor is more likely to endure the rigors than one who is toying with the idea of applying to graduate school in anthropology.

3. Schools dismissed more students. As concerns rose about bar passage rates, schools might have dismissed a larger percentage of poor-performing students from the Class of 2016 than earlier classes. Anecdotally, I don’t sense that dismissals increased significantly during the last two years, but ABA attrition data will shed light on that. I hope to look at those data soon.

4. More graduates postponed the bar. Last year we heard stories of a law school offering stipends to graduates who agreed to postpone taking the bar. That tactic seemed shady, but law schools might have more beneficently encouraged at-risk students to devote additional months to bar study before tackling the exam. Some students might have adopted that strategy on their own.

This strategy might not pay off for the postponers: there’s something to be said for jumping on the bar exam while law school (and its study habits) are freshest. But if the number of postponers increased, it could have raised MBE scores for those who took the exam immediately.

I doubt this phenomenon had much (if any) effect on the mean MBE score. We’ll be able to test the hypothesis when figures are available on the number of applicants who sat for the bar in each state.

Conclusion

There’s much more to say about the bar exam and legal education; I hope to continue my writing on that topic. For now, congratulations to the Class of 2016 and the educators who helped them prepare for the bar. And let’s not forget that many of those educators are non-tenure-track instructors who earn far less than deans and tenured faculty. Some of them don’t even bear the title of “professor.”

As bar results arrive at our schools, we need to think hard about who does the most to prepare our students for that required licensing exam; to diversify the profession by helping those with the least preparation; and to bolster our institutional pass rates. That work deserves far more compensation and recognition than it currently receives.

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  • publius

    Prof. Merritt,
    Concerning your hypothesis that more students postponed the bar examination, I can’t help but notice that many of Ohio’s lower-ranked law schools had huge percentage drops in first-time takers. For example, Ohio Northern University had 21 first-time takers in July 2015 (compared to 40 in July 2014) and Univ. of Dayton had 44 first-time takers (compared to 54 in July 2014). Data for bar admissions for other states may be more difficult to find if those states do not break down their data the way Ohio does, but the Ohio Supreme Court’s website could be a valuable source of empirical data to test your hypothesis.

    Data Source:
    http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/AttySvcs/admissions/barExam.asp

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    “[L]aw schools might have more beneficently encouraged at-risk students to devote additional months to bar study before tackling the exam. Some students might have adopted that strategy on their own. This strategy might not pay off for the postponers: there’s something to be said for jumping on the bar exam while law school (and its study habits) are freshest…”
    Not to mention that such a strategy will result in roughly one year of post-graduation blank space on the resume. And I can point anyone towards several studies on the short and long-term impacts of long-term unemployment on one’s job and salary prospects. After a year, you might as well be writing your resume in crayon. Or feces.

    • Sy Abelman

      A “resume gap” at the beginning of one’s career is no biggey. There are a number of ways to provide a satisfactory explanation. Being up front and saying “I studied” and took some time off before I began the “hustling” grind. I am READY now. On the other hand, if you were let go or fired from the PD’s office after ten years or got suspended and had a huge gap—that would raise a red flag. On the other hand, any “gap” could be artfully filled in as being a Solo, your own practice. Once an attorney is always an attorney even if one goofs off all day for a year watching Walker Texas Ranger reruns and Maury on WGN…

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