Bar Passage and Best Practices for Legal Education

My colleague Alfred Mathewson always makes me think.  He came back from the American Bar Association  Bar Exam Passage conference last week.  He had attended the Crossroads conference at the University of Washington too.  He had some interesting observations.  He said there were several schools that were creating “tracks” for students in the lower end of the class rank to focus them very specifically on legal analysis skills.  Of course, this type of  track limits their opportunity for clinical courses and some of the other courses that integrate Best Practices and Carnegie ideals.  Some schools are raising the average LSAT scores in hopes that their graduates will do better on the bar exam.   He noted that he had the sense that the confluence of bar passage imperatives and the Best Practices/ Carnegie movement might result in a kind of “two-tier” legal education where students with higher LSAT’s and grades will get the Best Practices/ Carnegie type education and students with lower LSATs and grades will get a legal analysis focused legal education…ironically legal analysis is the skill that Best Practices and Carnegie Report conclude that legal education over emphasizes… WOW!   Is this backward! 

The University of New Mexico had a 94% bar passage rate the last administration.    A recent survey of our faculty reveals that ALL first year courses offer a mid-term exam and provide feedback.  We have a first year one credit “practicum” experience to offer students an introduction to legal skills.  Many upper division courses offer multiple assessments of student work tied to clear learning objectives.  Our clinic is required for graduation and most students take Evidence /Trial Practice, a skills-based course.  There is no limit on skills based courses that our students can take and most students take quite a few of them.  And, my experiment with using “standardized clients” (described in earlier posts) in Family Law to help train students about domestic violence revealed improved performance on a traditional issue spotting exam on the domestic violence issues.  In other words, students learned the substantive law and its application better when  it was integrated  with a simulated interview of a domestic violence survivor.   Thus, the ideas in Best Practices and Carnegie will not only produce better lawyers,  I believe that the ideas will help students pass the bar exam because they will be better prepared. 

5 Responses

  1. This “two-tiered” approach to legal education does seem backward and quite foolish! I think there is some conflated thinking which leads to this “false Solution.” For example, some students who test out near the bottom of the class DO need to learn not to overcommit, how to focus and how to prioritze. Counselling such students on limiting unnecessary extra-curricular activities may be wise. However precluding such students from learning situations which will more likely play to their strengths is counterintuitive.
    Academic support programs can address time managment issues as well as develop skill buidling in reading cases, outlining, organizid thinking and analysis. Such programs evidence real success. Coincidentally, the skills emphasized in academic support programs are put into context in properly supervised clinical program and courses taught using best practices. These programs need to build on each other – not compete! At Albany, we have been fortunate to have our Academic Support Program spearheaded by Professor Kathe Klare, a former clinical prof. Kathe views the clinical program as a continuation of training particularly helpful for the very students who need support. Particularly, in upper level courses, most faculty are not focused on skill development but on enhanced knowlege aquisition. Kathe works closely with clinical professors so we can provide a continuum of teaching and support for all students. I may be biased but this informal collaboration really works!

  2. Just another example of changing legal education with no empirical proof that taking clinical courses interferes with bar passage or that taking more traditional doctrinal courses with tests improves bar passage. The only empirical work that I am aware of finds no correlation between bar passage and courses taken whether clinical or not. Most schools’ research shows Law School GPA to have the highest correlation with passage.

    Antoinette it would be interesting to compare institutions with similar students to New Mexico in terms of academic strengths at entering and compare results. Of course — there are many things to keep constant — as bar passage differs from state to state. Our own study shows that we do better with similarly situated students than other schools that do not emphasize or require clinical courses but we also have a very substantial academic support program as well.

    I think schools that have students who take clinic and those that don;t could do this research as well. A few good studies would go a long way to debunking the you will only pass the bar if you take doctrinal courses.

  3. Albany’s approach seems to make a lot of sense. And, of course, CUNY has been a leader in preparing students in knowledge, skills and values for law practice as well as the bar. I agree Sue, we need more research on teaching effectiveness. I wonder where we can get funding for that? And, of course, as Mary, Chris Glen and others have pointed out., we could examine bar admission approaches that focus on the knowledge, skills and values identified in the MacCrate Report, Best Practices and Carnegie. This different approach to bar admission would help ensure that the bar admits qualified lawyers as opposed to qualified exam takers!

  4. I’d be interested in hearing about your 1 credit practicum, Antoinette. I’ve long been interested in ways that we can provide more context for 1Ls, in part with the thought that would help them learn the analytical skills and basic doctrine better.

    Your post is a reminder that just saying the first year is fine, thank you, as the Carnegie Report largely does, leaves a segment of our students “at risk”.

  5. I asked my colleagues who are teaching praticum this year for information about this year’s course. Since it is a new topic, I will post it on a new thread.

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