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The High Cost of Not Lowering the Bar

June 28th, 2017 / By

Gilbert A. Holmes is Dean and Professor of Law at the University of La Verne College of Law

In July of 2016, graduates from ABA-approved law schools in California had a first-time General Bar Examination pass rate of 62 percent, and all bar takers in the state had a first-time pass rate of 56 percent. These numbers are down from previous years, sparking debate, discussion and deliberation about the reason for the decline and what can be done about it.

Deans of ABA-approved law schools in California have been calling for a lowering of the cut score that serves as the basis for grading of the exam. California has the second highest cut score in the country. It also has the lowest pass rate, even though researcher Roger Bolus reported to the State Bar of California that the state’s bar exam takers perform higher than the national average on the only portion of the exam that every state except Louisiana administers—the MBE.

The State Bar has responded to this call by engaging in a number of studies about the content and validity of the bar exam and the California grading system. (more…)

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Bar Exam Scores and Lawyer Discipline

June 3rd, 2017 / By

Robert Anderson and Derek Muller have posted a provocative paper, The High Cost of Lowering the Bar, in which they argue that “bar exam score is significantly related to likelihood of State Bar discipline throughout a lawyer’s career.” Thus, they warn, “lowering the bar examination passing score,” as several California law deans have advocated, “will likely increase the amount of malpractice, misconduct, and discipline among California lawyers.”

Anderson and Muller urge the state bar to collect more detailed data on the relationship between bar scores and lawyer discipline–and then to consider the possible impact on attorney misconduct if the Supreme Court lowers the passing score. “The data we have collected,” they conclude, “should raise serious concerns about the effect on consumers of lowering the passing score.”

What type of correlation did Anderson and Muller identify? Should it affect decisions about the passing score for the bar exam? Let’s take a closer look.

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More on the Bar Exam: Correlation and Competence

May 31st, 2017 / By

Derek Muller has identified an intriguing study of alternative ways to assess bar applicants. In 1980, the California bar examiners worked with a research team to explore the desirability of testing a wider range of lawyering skills on the bar exam. The researchers designed a two-day supplement to the bar exam and invited all July test-takers to participate in the supplemental exercise. More than 4,000 test-takers volunteered and, using appropriate sampling methods, the researchers chose 500 to participate. A few volunteers were unable to complete the exercise due to illness, so the final sample included 485 bar examinees.

These examinees completed the supplemental exercises in August 1980, shortly after taking the regular July exam. For two days, the examinees interviewed clients, drafted discovery plans, prepared letters, wrote trial briefs, cross-examined witnesses, and made arguments to mock juries. Each day’s work involved 5-6 tasks focused on a single client matter. Professional actors played the role of clients, and the researchers developed elaborate protocols for scoring the exercises.

How did results on the supplemental exam compare to those on the conventional test?

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Trends in Law Firm Staffing

May 28th, 2017 / By

Altman Weil has released its annual report on “Law Firms in Transition.” The report, based on a survey of managing partners of law firms with at least 50 lawyers, documents continued change in the way law firms staff their matters.

More than half of these law firms now use contract lawyers (57.1%) or part-time lawyers (52.7%). Almost half (41.8%) employ staff attorneys. Larger firms (those with at least 250 lawyers) are more likely than smaller firms to use these staffing strategies. Indeed, about three quarters of those larger firms use contract lawyers (77.0%), part-time lawyers (71.3%) or staff attorneys (78.2%). The numbers, however, are still significant at firms with 50-249 lawyers–especially for contract lawyers. More than half (50.4%) of the mid-sized firms use those lawyers.

Law firms have adopted these strategies because they increase profitability. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed leaders indicated that “shifting work to contract/temporary lawyers” has resulted in a “significant improvement” in that metric. Almost half (49.5%) thought that “shifting work from lawyers to paraprofessionals” had the same salutary effect.

Law firms have also started to push the next frontier in staffing client matters: by using artificial intelligence (like IBM’s Watson) for some analyses. More than a third of law firms (36.3%) have started using those tools or “have begun to explore” those opportunities.

These results are not surprising to anyone who has followed law firm trends since the Great Recession. They underline, however, firms’ enthusiasm for these new staffing models.

H/t to TaxProf for noting the availability of Altman Weil’s report.

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LST Reports Updated

May 11th, 2017 / By

As Debby pointed out, the ABA just released the latest employment statistics. Each school’s report is on the ABA website and their own website, but it’s not easy to compare schools in a giant spreadsheet, either with each other or year over year. I just updated the LST Reports with all the new data. These comparisons are easy using our tools.

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2016 Employment Outcomes

May 11th, 2017 / By

The ABA has posted its report on employment outcomes for the Class of 2016, along with two school-by-school spreadsheets. One of the spreadsheets tracks law school funded jobs that require bar passage; the other details other employment outcomes. My initial take-aways are:

  • Nationwide, the size of the graduating class fell 7.15%.
  • That decline allowed schools to register a slight increase in the percentage of graduates employed in the key category of full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission. That percentage rose from 59.2% to 61.8%.
  • The number of graduates employed in those job categories, however, fell from 23,687 for the Class of 2015 to 22,930 for the Class of 2016. That decline (3.1%) continues a trend noted last year, although the decline is smaller this year.
  • The number of students taking part-time JD Advantage jobs rose markedly–by 16.3% in the long-term category and 72.8% in the short-term one. The overall numbers are small compared to other job categories, but the jumps are noticeable.
  • The percentage of graduates known to be unemployed and seeking jobs declined from 9.7% to 8.8%. Those figures, however, must be read in connection with an increase in the percentage of graduates for whom employment status was unknown. If we assume that just a third of the latter graduates were unemployed and seeking work (a conservative estimate), then 10.04% of the Class of 2016 was still unemployed and seeking work ten months after graduation.

Overall, the report suggests continued weakness in the entry-level job market for law graduates. The decline in the absolute number of graduates holding full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar admission is worrisome–especially since we take that measure a full 10 months after graduation. Even more troubling is the fact that 10% of the nation’s law graduates are unemployed and seeking work a full ten months after graduation.

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Jobs and Salaries for New Lawyers

April 30th, 2017 / By

What does the job market look like for new lawyers? The ABA will soon release statistics about the Class of 2016, and NALP will add additional information by the end of the summer. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) gives us an advance peak.

Each year, BLS reports job numbers and salaries for a wide range of occupations. This series of reports includes only salaried positions; for the legal profession, the series omits both solo practitioners and equity partners in law firms. Still, since most new graduates seek salaried positions, these numbers offer a useful measure of the profession’s ability to absorb and pay new members.

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ABA Moves Forward on Revised Accreditation Standards

September 10th, 2016 / By

The ABA Section of Legal Education’s Standards Review and Data Policy Committee voted unanimously today to recommend that the Section’s Council approve revisions to Standards 501 and 316.

This comes on the heels of a multi-month notice and comment period, which saw a number of comments about the revisions.

The committee recommended that the revised standards be adopted as proposed.

By taking this action, the committee acknowledges that its primary responsibilities are protecting the public and students, not law schools.

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The Latest Change in the MBE

September 5th, 2016 / By

In the memo announcing results from the July 2016 MBE, Erica Moeser also notified law school deans about an upcoming change in the test. For many years the 200-question exam has included 190 scored items and 10 pre-test questions. Starting in February 2017, the numbers will shift to 175 scored items and 25 pre-test ones.

Pre-testing is an important feature of standardized exams. The administrator uses pre-test answers to gauge a question’s clarity, difficulty, and usefulness for future exams. When examinees answer those questions, they improve the design of future tests.

From the test-taker’s perspective, these pre-test questions are indistinguishable from scored ones. Like other test-makers, NCBE scatters its pre-test questions throughout the exam. Examinees answer each question without knowing whether it is a “real” item that will contribute to their score or a pre-test one that will not.

So what are the implications of NCBE’s increase in the number of pre-test items? The shift is relatively large, from 10 questions (5% of the exam) to 25 (12.5% of the exam). I have three concerns about this change: fair treatment of human research subjects, reliability of the exam, and the possible impact on bar passage rates. I’ll explore the first of these concerns here and turn to the others in subsequent posts.

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LSAC Throws a Temper Tantrum

August 17th, 2016 / By

The Law School Admissions Council has thrown its latest tantrum.

In a letter to admissions professionals around the country, LSAC’s president, Daniel Bernstine, signaled that LSAC would stop certifying the accuracy of each law school’s LSAT and undergraduate GPA statistics. The certification is a joint effort between LSAC and the ABA to prevent law schools from lying about their admissions statistics.

LSAC agreed to certify admissions statistics in 2012 after months of roundly dismissing calls for certification. The group had claimed that certification would be cost prohibitive, despite nearly $60 million in total revenue in 2011 and a $10.7 million surplus in 2012. The group also claimed that certification was outside the scope of its organizational mission, despite its member law schools saying that LSAC was best positioned to protect the integrity of the admissions process.

Pressure mounted in 2011 and 2012 for LSAC to help the ABA after two law schools intentionally reported fraudulent data to the ABA and elsewhere, including to U.S. News and World Report for their annual law school rankings. In February 2011, Villanova University School of Law reported that an official at the law school intentionally reported fabricated LSAT and GPA statistics for an unknown number of years prior to 2010. Later that year, the University of Illinois College of Law admitted to intentionally fabricating the same statistics over a seven-year period. The school’s assistant dean for admissions and financial aid, Paul Pless, resigned as a result of the controversy.

This tantrum is LSAC’s second one this year. Both came after the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law announced that the school would allow applicants to submit GRE scores in place of LSAT scores.

At that time, LSAC threatened to strip Arizona of its membership, which would eliminate access to a variety of services. LSAC walked back the threat in May after pressure from its membership and anti-trust concerns.

So why is the ABA now the latest recipient of LSAC’s retribution?

In response to law schools hoping to utilize the GRE as a non-exclusive alternative to the LSAT, which is designed and administered by LSAC, the ABA is examining whether the GRE meets Standard 503. That standard provides that schools must use a “valid and reliable admission test to assist the school and the applicant in assessing the applicant’s capability of satisfactorily completing the school’s program of legal education.” The LSAT is the only nationally validated test as of right now, though Arizona independently validated the GRE and other schools are trying to also.
(more…)

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