Did You Know That “Bar Courses” Don’t Matter?

Do “bar courses” make a difference?  Perhaps not, according to data from a recent study.  If the data are correct, what are the implications for law schools?

A June, 2007, Journal of Legal Education article reported that an empirical study at one law school determined that bar passage rates were not affected by taking “bar courses” for students in the first, second, or fourth quartile of their class.  Douglas K. Rush and Hisako Matsuo, Does Law School Curriculum Affect Bar Examination Passage?  An Empirical Analysis of Factors Related to Bar Examination Passage During the Years 2001 Through 2006 at a Midwestern Law School, 57 J. Legal Educ. 224 (June 2007).

The study was limited to one school, and the results may be different at other schools.  Irregardless, the findings of this study should motivate every law school to ask, “How can we improve our efforts to prepare our students for the bar examination?”

The fact is that law schools are not doing a very good job of preparing students to pass the bar examination.  As discussed on page 15 of Roy Stuckey and Others, Best Practices for Legal Education (2007), about one out of four students fail to pass the bar examination the first time they take it.  We are talking about bright people who succeeded in college, graduated from law school, and most likely participated in a commercial cram course before taking the bar examination.  This is an unacceptable outcome, and every law teacher should be embarrassed.

If “bar courses” are in the curriculum to help prepare students for the bar examination, why aren’t they more effective?  Rush and Matsuo do not attempt to answer this question in their article.  Let me make a few suggestions, just to get the conversation started.

The primary shortcoming of ‘bar courses” is that most teachers of these courses do not teach to the bar exam.  They do not focus on providing their students the information and skills that are required to pass the bar examinations they will most likely take.  One of the conclusions of the Carnegie report, Educating Lawyers (2007), was that law school teachers tend to continue teaching the same skill sets in the second and third years that they teach in the first year, even after students “get it.” 

The casebook/dialogue method of teaching is not a good way to give students what they need to know on the bar examination.  Even worse, using a national casebook to teach subjects that will involve state law on the bar examination, e.g., Domestic Relations, means that the material that will be tested on the bar exam will not even be covered in the course.  (The argument that law teachers are preparing their students to practice law anywhere in the country, not in a specific state or region, is not persuasive when the reality is that the vast majority of law school graduates take bar examinations in the states where they attend law school.)

Law schools’ failure to take preparation for the bar examination more seriously is puzzling.  The ABA accreditation process places great weight on bar passage rates, and a high bar passage rates helps schools compete for students.

For many years, some law teachers, including myself, have complained that curriculum reform is impeded by having to offer so many “bar courses.”  If “bar courses” do not affect whether most students will pass a bar examination, perhaps schools should not offer such courses and reallocate those resources to teaching skills and values. 

I would like to hear other people’s reactions to the midwestern school’s data. 

By the way, I agree that bar examinations need to be significantly reformed.  Until they change, however, law teachers should be looking for more effective ways to prepare their students for the bar examinations they will face upon graduation.  Our traditional approach is not working very well.

2 Responses

  1. […] Mending Legal Education from Best Practices for Legal Education […]

  2. Roy: You might be interested to know that I repeated my study using one year of data from Hofstra Law School concerning their graduates’ performance on the July 2007 NY bar exam with identical results. The number of “bar” courses taken had no affect on bar exam passage for students ranked in the first, second or fourth quartiles and only a very weak affect on third quartile graduates ability to pass the exam. As shown in previous studies, LGPA, LSAT scores and UGPA account for 50% of the variance in graduates’ ability to pass bar exams. My conclusion, if you want students to pass bar exams, teach more logic, reasoning and test taking skills. Doug Rush, J.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Saint Louis University

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