After All These Years: Another Bar Exam Over, Another Entering Class, but Still a Disconnect between the Licensing Exam and What We Need Lawyers to Be and Do

I was never a Journey fan but I truly am astonished that after all these years of preparing lawyers for practice, and after two years of an unprecedented undermining of  the rule of law in our nation, law schools still live with a disconnect between the profession’s  licensing exam and what business, government and society needs lawyers to be and do, which includes protecting  the rule of law. 

The National Law Journal recently discussed two new major studies which will analyze whether the current exam is the best measure of new lawyer competence.  The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) is in the midst of a three year study  to “ensure that the bar examination continues to test the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for competent entry-level legal practice in the 21st century.”  (Hmm, continues? that’s a bit biased) and has already held 30 listening sessions.  

The second study, “Building a Better Bar: Capturing Minimum Competence” is an initiative of  the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in partnership with Ohio State Law Professor Deborah Merritt, and aspires to develop a “fair, evidence-based definition of minimum competence” to improve the current licensing process.  Funded by Access-Lex, the researchers:

will be holding 60 focus groups in 12 locations around the country. While these focus group participants will primarily be new lawyers, we will also hold a number of specialized groups with supervisors. Additional specialized groups will include only women and only people of color, as well as groups in rural areas; traditional job analyses can mask the views of these lawyers, yet their perspectives are essential to create a more fully representative view of minimum competence and how to test for it effectively. Through these focus groups, we will be able to capture key information from a diversity of perspectives and provide concrete data on the definition of minimum competence that the profession can use to improve the bar exam and how lawyers are licensed.

 

Readers may remember that IAALS has provided helpful research in the past through its Foundations for Practice  research, which identified the  competencies over 24,000 legal employers value in new hires (most of which go untested by the current licensing process) as well as the evaluation of the graduates of the Daniel Websters Honors alternative to the bar exam in “Ahead of the Curve:  turning Law Students into Lawyers

I suppose I should be delighted that more studies are being launched. They are addressing the exact issues so many of us have raised for decades. However, my reaction is uncharacteristically pessimistic.  (Readers here who have tolerated my enthusiastic use of exclamation points and emphasis will agree it is uncharacteristic).  Perhaps it is the August humidity. Perhaps, it is the sorrow surrounding our nation after a week of grief from senseless gun violence But more likely, it is the fact that I am feeling frustrated that we have already studied this to death! For example, working with state bar associations The Foundations for Practice Project already studied new lawyer competencies with 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states participating and found

… the foundations that entry-level lawyers need to launch successful careers in the legal profession.

In a first-of-its-kind survey, we asked, “What makes a new lawyer successful?” More than 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states answered.

What we learned is that new lawyers need more than IQ and EQ to be successful. They also need CQ: Character Quotient. In fact, 76% of characteristics (thinks like integrity, work ethic, common sense, and resilience) were identified by a majority of respondents as necessary right out of law school.

Beyond character, new lawyers are successful when they come to the job with a broad blend of legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics that comprise what we call the “whole lawyer.”

So why is the NCBE, who clearly has a stake in the outcome, refusing to respond to the outcome of that 3 year old study but instead promising only to do its own study. JEESH! We tweak here and there, we add more pro bono or experiential requirements, but no one truly influential will admit that our insistence on anchoring the gateway to the profession to a timed, written exam instead of clinical excellence is the problem.

Starting as early as 2008, this blog has discussed the problems with the bar exam and its role as an unhelpful, anxiety producing, discriminatory, skewed, and unnecessarily speeded, gate-keeping device.  For a sporadic history of posts between then and now, in fairly chronological order, click on the links below.

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

New Article: No Excuses Left for Failing to Reform Legal Education

Working with State Bar Associations on Best Practices

Bar Passage and Best Practices for Legal Education

One BAR to rule them all?

The Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program

NYSBA Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession Report

New Requirements for Bar Exam Stress Clinical Education

Existential Crisis and Bar Exams: what is really cruelest?

The Bar Exam Inhibits Curricular Reform

NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION VIGOROUSLY OPPOSES PROPOSAL TO BRING UBE TO NY THIS JULY

Preparing Students for the Multistate Bar Exam

Musings on the Bar Exam and Legal Education’s Attitude toward it

Bar Exam Musings, Part II: Skillfully Changing the Bar Exam Narrative

Experts in the Legal Field Question the Bar Exam…

What’s going on in California? “TFARR- recommended” 15 credits of competency training

New York Proposes “Experiential Learning Requirements” as Condition of Licensure: CLEA and NYS Bar Committee Respond

Examining the Bar

Keeping an experiential identity in bar passage reform

Whither Clinical Courses and Bar Passage – by Prof. Robert Kuehn

DO LAW SCHOOLS ADEQUATELY PREPARE STUDENTS FOR PRACTICE? SURVEYS SAY . . . NO! – Robert Kuehn, Washington University School of Law

Professor Merritt’s Blog post on attorney discipline and bar exam WORTH A READ!

Studying Better Ways to Test Bar Applicants for Minimum Competence: Another Reason to Care about the California Bar Exam (Besides the Cut Score Debate)

Scholarship on Bar Exam Alternatives Needed

ABA Commission on Future of the Profession & ABA Vote on Bar Passage Proposal

Drafting Exams With Test-Taking Speed in MindConcrete Suggestions for Bar Exam Reform

We have to talk about the bar exam

What can Law Schools Learn about Bar Passage from Medical Schools’ Approach to Studying Students Who Struggle with Licensing Exams?

More Resources Re Teaching, Learning, and Bar Passage

A Fresh Look at the Uniform Bar Examination

Letters raise concerns about changes to the bar pass accreditation standard

Time to Remedy the Ills Afflicting ABA Council’s Standard 316 Proposal

Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?

Shifting the Focus of Legal Education Back to Just That: Education

How Practice Tests Reduce Anxiety in Bar Preparation and the Exam

Quite a listing, huh? I suspect that the IAALS and Merritt project will provide us with extraordinarily helpful insights into measuring minimum competence. But political clout is also needed. Will this BLOG simply be adding more posts for years to come on the unfairness and inappropriateness of a slightly modified, unnecessarily stressful, timed, bar exam — a continued hazing tradition?  I hope the NCBE and other institutional influencers proves me wrong.

The role of law school internships and supervisors

Today’s ABA Journal contains an op ed by a law student complaining that “law school  biases”  infringe on his right to free speech. Part of his critique involved a change in clinical policies after he wore a #BuildTheWall T-shirt to his internship.

“It had been expressed that we could wear T-shirts, and that has been the norm for my one year at this internship. I took extra precaution by bringing a light jacket to cover it up if a client came to meet with me unannounced.”

Others are better prepared than I to debate the issue generally of whether his claims demonstrate bias in higher education or bias on the part of the student. Others can ponder whether as educators, we are more apt to be triggered by exclusive versus inclusive messages since we value designing welcoming learning environments  and growth mindset .  However, I am not interested in this school’s particular behaviour or this student’s startling apparent nonchalance about how his clothing affected his colleagues, peers and the workplace.  Rather, I am more interested in developing a better understanding of the difference between an academic discussion about self-expression, and the responsibilities and possible repression of some self-expression that most lawyers and law students undergo when donning their professional role as legal interns do.

In my 30 years in clinical education, I have witnessed multiple instances of clinical faculty navigating the tricky balance in communicating professional norms, protecting clients and academic programs, and  respecting a student’s rights. Here are just a few issues we have addressed:

helping students without wealth obtain professional clothing

multicultural insensitivity to clients by both majority and minority students

student difficulty interacting with racist, homophobic and/or sexist, clients, judges, witnesses or opposing attorneys

Unlaundered clothes, smelly students

tight clothes (in men and women)

Clacking heels, scuffed shoes, or wearing clogs all day, every day, one’s whole life

Hair over eyes

dirty fingernails

evolving norms around piercing, black women’s hair, women wearing pants, more casual clothing, hair with color not found in nature

evolving norms around cell phones in local courts, e-mail

learning to use an ancient device called a telephone, to actually initiate a call or listen to voicemail

navigating support for transgender students in unwelcoming situations

drooping pants, belly showing, off the shoulder outfits, cleavage

loud talking, gum chewing,

informality in general which can appear as rudeness to supervisors

“distracting” jewelry

women students raising their voices in a question at the end of a sentence

…and I am sure you teachers can add many more. Feel free.

As a law professor steeped in clinical legal pedagogy and theory, I start the conversation with a few  questions:

  • what is the student’s “educational goal” for her academic/professional journey or experience
  • what is the student’s “lawyer goal” in the context of this internship, case or professional experience
  • what are the client’s/workplace’s needs and goals
  • what are the needs and goals of the community that supports you having this experience — the support staff, the court officers, your sister and fellow students, the local legal community (in this area I first must acknowledge my priorities and how current student behavior may close off opportunities for future students)

Then I discuss with the student how the student’s desired self-expression fits within those questions and priorities, and the possible disconnect from her goals and the programs.

This is my approach.  What do you do?

 

 

Examples of How Law Schools are Addressing Law Student Well-Being

In a recent post, we summarized the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s recommendations for law schools. This post follows up to provide examples of what law schools are doing on the subject of student wellness. These efforts are intended to educate students and create good habits that they will take with them into practice.

Gather Well-Being Resources on a Webpage. Gathering a list of programs and resources in one place makes it easy for students to know the opportunities that are available and highlights the school’s commitment to student well-being. William & Mary Law School does a nice job of cataloging their wellness opportunities on this page, which links to another page listing “Wellness Wednesday Events.”

Curriculum. Law schools are increasingly creating classes on wellness-related topics. This blog recently discussed The University of Tennessee College of Law’s class Thriving as a Lawyer (A Scientific Approach).  Many schools have developed courses on the subject of mindfulness. For example, University of Miami School of Law offers a number of classes in its Mindfulness in Law Program, Northwestern Law’s mindfulness offerings include Mindfulness-Based Resilient Lawyering, while UC Davis School of Law offers Mindfulness and Professional Identity: Becoming a Lawyer While Keeping Your Values Intact.  The University of San Francisco School of Law and South Texas College of Law Houston both offer courses in Contemplative Lawyering.

Extra-Curricular. Extra-curricular activities can address multiple aspects of student wellness, from creating a sense of community to addressing physical health. Yoga classes (such as the weekly classes offered at Marquette University Law School) and running clubs (like those at Lewis & Clark Law School and UCLA Law) are popular at law schools. Book clubs (like the one at the Michigan Law which is promoted as a fiction escape from law books) and potluck dinner gatherings (offered for students at Tennessee Law) provide opportunities for students to connect, socialize, and recharge.

Counseling. Many law schools are connected to universities with counseling and related services available to all students; it can be incredibly helpful to make law students aware of those university resources by creating a list on a law school webpage (like the one created by the University of Missouri School of Law).  Some law schools, like American University Washington College of Law, and William & Mary Law School  have counseling and “wellness coaching” services in the law school building to make it easier for students to access.

Creating a Space that Encourages Student Health and Wellness. A number of law schools have given thought to student health and well-being as they have designed or re-designed their space. While not every school can afford a gym, many have made space for standing desks in the library, ping pong tables, and exercise bikes.

Well-Being Committees and Student Organizations.  A number of schools have created well-being committees or student organizations, often at the urging of students. For example, the Washburn Association for Law Student Health states its purpose is to “actively promote the education and awareness regarding health and wellness of the law student body, mentally and physically, while creating a community for students interested in promoting health and wellness in their own lives and in the lives of their peers.”

These examples only scratch the surface of all the things law schools are doing on the topic of well-being. If your law school is doing something that other schools may want to consider, please add it in the comments.

 

Thriving as a Lawyer

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being encourages law schools to develop a “Well-Being Course.” The Task Force explains that such a course can “leverage research findings from positive psychology and neuroscience” and explore the many benefits of enhanced well-being, including improved cognitive performance–in law school and legal practice.

Doug Blaze and Candice Reed developed the well-being course Thriving as a Lawyer (A Scientific Approach) and taught it for the first time in spring 2019. In creating the course, Doug Blaze drew on his 30+ years of law teaching experience (including his work as a clinician and clinic director, a Dean, and now as  Director of Tennessee Law’s Institute for Professional Leadership), while Candace Reed drew on her legal training, her practice experience, and her background in positive psychology (she holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania).

The Thriving syllabus explains why the course is needed and what students should expect to learn:

“[Lawyers’ struggle to achieve happiness] puts us at high risk for burn-out, depression, alcoholism, divorce, and even suicide. Accordingly, this course is designed to introduce law students to the scientific principles of positive psychology, while incorporating ‘hands-on learning’ through empirically validated positive interventions, which require cognitive reasoning and physical effort, encourage habitualizing behavior, involve goal-setting, and allow for self-efficacy or autonomy.”

Students are provided the following list of themes that they will study in the 2-credit course:

  1. Why are many lawyers so unhappy? How does this unhappiness or lack of thriving typically present itself? In other words, what are the symptoms of a lawyer in trouble? What are the signs someone is struggling?
  2. What are the obstacles to thriving in the law? Why is happiness in the law so elusive?
  3. Is it possible for the highest ethical behavior and client service to flourish under these circumstances? If not, should legal institutions (i.e. law schools, bar associations, law firms and corporate legal departments) encourage and promote wellbeing? If so, how?
  4. What roles do personality, emotions and character strengths play in attorney wellbeing (or a lack thereof)? Should lawyers (and their employers) take these personal characteristics into account in making career choices (e.g. type of legal job or employer, practice concentration, etc.)?
  5. What strategies/practices/habits/mindsets support lawyer wellbeing? What should lawyers do if they want to increase their own wellbeing?
  6. How can these issues be articulated in a persuasive manner to leaders of legal institutions and lawyers themselves to promote lasting, positive change?

Reed and Blaze assemble an impressive list of reading assignments for the class, including articles like these:

Thriving students are prompted to complete the VIA survey of Character Strengths, as well as several of the questionnaires (on on topics such  positive and negative affect and grit) at the University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness Test Center

Students do a presentation on a book on a well-being related topic. The book list includes a number of titles, including the following: 

  • Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant
  • The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal Ben-Shahar
  • Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey
  • The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation by Jeena Cho
  • Wire Your Brain for Confidence by Louisa Jewell

In its 2019 rollout, one strength of Thriving was its unique format: it was taught over two 3-day weekends. Students were required to do a lot of reading, journaling, questionnaire completion, and other work before these sessions. And during the long weekend classes, students were fully immersed in the course material with their colleagues and their professors. The course received rave reviews and will likely become a regular course offering.

 

Bylaws and business meetings: a 1L experiential module

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School

The first year of law school rightfully has been criticized for overly prioritizing the litigation model and for making it the central focus of our teaching. This emphasis lulls students into believing that the judicial audience is the primary consumer of legal communications. To counteract that skewing, those of us teaching in the 1L curriculum are often exhorted to find ways to discuss transactional forms of legal writing. But, contract-drafting is not easily built into a curriculum already bursting at the seams with the must-have’s that we cram into the lower-credited experiential classes of the 1L year.

Enter the idea of dedicating part of two or three classes to small-organization bylaws and business meetings. The bylaws of a small organization are constitutional, so this type of teaching module fits in nicely with what they are learning in other introductory courses. And while some students may know a little bit about bylaws and business meetings from previous experiences in college, religious groups, or other volunteer activities, most students probably won’t have a great deal of knowledge. Learning about these ideas will appeal to them because of the immediate applicability to the very student-run organizations in which, as rising 2Ls, they are poised to assume leadership positions.

I begin by asking those students with a little bit of knowledge to help me outline, on the board, the setup and order of a business meeting. Typically, at least one or two students in a group of 20 will be able to walk others through it with a little bit of prompting. We talk about why a roll call must happen right after the call to order and opening ceremonies. Ask your own students how many of them know something about quorum—you may be startled to learn how few students do. Teaching them what quorum is and how it relates to business-agenda items engages the students and almost immediately makes them realize just how practical this module is.

Discussions about business meetings naturally leads to a conversation about the rudiments of Robert’s Rules of Order and how voting happens on an agenda item.[1] I have sometimes run a class or two in a business-meeting format, inviting students to make formal motions about some of the softer deadlines in the course. As part of that, students must calculate quorum to hold class at all. I always ask them the lowest number of votes it would take to carry a vote, assuming we had exactly quorum present. Students are awoken to the fact that in a class of 20 students, 6 students might be able to bind the other 14. (That is: quorum for a group of 20 students is 11. And if only 11 are present, a simple majority to carry a vote is 6). “It’s important to show up and have your vote counted,” I have remarked. The message isn’t lost on them.

Students also have the opportunity to step into role for actual representation work. A few years ago, knowing this module, our Women’s Law Caucus president approached me and asked if the 1Ls in my class might provide some advice about issues her executive board had identified in their bylaws. Naturally, I immediately agreed. To prepare students for their client, they first looked at a larger set of bylaws I had worked on for a local high school boosters organization. I changed a few items to take the bylaws out of compliance with the New Jersey statutes governing non-profit organizations (a relatively easy statutory scheme). Fifteen questions later, they knew enough to issue-spot in the much simpler student-organization bylaws. Then, in small groups, they looked at the Women’s Law Caucus bylaws and a week later offered their recommendations to the officers. Who adopted almost all of the advice.

This was such a feel-good moment for all involved that I have made it an annual module. Depending on the year, I have had students conclude with a client letter written by the small groups together, or I have simplified it even further and simply had the 1L students meet with the organization’s officer in class to offer their verbal recommendations (I act as scribe for the  officer in those circumstances). Each year I walk away impressed with the speed of absorption my 1L students have for this material. They take the representation seriously, and I think that they also enjoy it. I am likewise impressed with the 2L and 3L student’ willingness to serve as the client for my 1Ls even though it will net them extra work down the road as they work through the bylaws-amending process. I think they also feel that they learn valuable lessons by being the client. Having just completed this year’s project, I already have received a request from an organization’s new president to have my next year’s 1L students put her organization’s bylaws under their microscope.

This assignment is win-win for all involved. It is low-stakes for the 1L students, but it engages them in professional identity development, statutory analysis, problem-solving, and client-counseling skills. The module provides a pragmatic experience—who among us hasn’t been part of a business meeting or bylaws consultation?—and it offers a different perspective on legal practice. To put it simply: it’s relatively easy, it’s fun, and it’s real-world. I highly recommend it to others.

[1]The essentials of Robert’s Rules can be found online although the 11thedition is still a to-purchase item.

Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?

Thank you so much to Best Practices for Legal Education for inviting me to blog again and to Elizabeth Murad for her remarkable work in keeping contributors in touch and on track.  So much is written about the very real decline in bar passage that it is easy for schools with high pass rates–or at least high in relation to other schools in their state– to ignore the need to change what goes on in the classroom and dismiss the excellent work being done in effective law teaching as a problem for “lesser schools” in “lower tiers.”

We know, as legal educators , members of the bar and even members of the public, that bar passage rates have been falling.  And we also know that many, if not most, law schools are admitting students today with LSAT scores lower than those that they  admitted ten years ago. So it’s easy to see a correlation between lower scores and falling rates.  After all, the bar exam is a test much like the LSAT–why wouldn’t there be a relationship?   But even if students are failing the bar exam for the same reasons they are getting low LSAT Scores,  we still have the opportunity to intervene in ways that we know raise pass rates.  This blog contains so many resources for those who want to teach more effectively.   Why wouldn’t we want this for all our students?

Everyone at a school with a “bar passage problem” is well aware that we cannot continue to do the same things we always have when they are no longer working the way they used to.  But we hear this less at schools satisfied with their bar passage  Perhaps the students who are failing are really canaries in the coal mine and a warning to all of legal education that all of today’s law students find it more difficult translating their legal education into the very peculiar format required for bar passage-regardless of LSAT score? Everyone who has ever studied for the bar exam remembers it as a grueling, unpleasant, and highly intensive process–but until very recently that process started after graduation and barring personal disaster almost always resulted in passage.  Even when it didn’t, the consequences of were lower.  Today, students safely employed in September find themselves fired if October brings news of failure.  We need to consider bar passage as an issue both for students who fail and for those who pass–after all, both groups spend the same three years in law school.

Anecdotal evidence (which we could easily substitute for actual data by doing some surveys) suggests that bar passage anxiety spreads well beyond those students most at risk.  All students know that the stakes are high and many believe that their chances of passing are lower than students in the past.  Does that affect their choices while in law school?  Could they be doing more to prepare for their future careers if we could provide them more effective instruction?

Medical students and educators are expressing the same kinds of concerns about their curriculum being shaped by a test as we should be about ours.   We can’t easily change the bar exam–but we can adopt more direct methods of instruction that support not just bar passage but create time for the more complex and less exam focused thinking that we want to be going on in class.

I hope over the week to share resources that would encourage everyone to consider how studying for a very old fashioned test is negatively shaping the education of all of today’s law students. (and because it always warrants reposting-here is a recently revised article by, Louis Schulze of what they have done at FIU to apply the “science of learning” across the curriculum in support of higher bar passage.

 

We have to talk about the bar exam

Thank you very much to the team at Best Practices for Legal Education for inviting me to blog this week.  My particular thanks to Elizabeth Murad for administering the blog, Professor Mary Lynch, Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy & Director, Center for Excellence in Law and President & Dean Alicia Ouellette of Albany Law School for hosting this blog.  It is an honor to join such a distinguished group of scholars and teachers.

We knew it was going to be a bad bar year when on Sept 14, 2018 the NCBE announced that “the national average MBE Score for July 2018” had decreased “about 2.2. points from the July 2018 average.”  And, indeed, as states have announced the pass rates based on their own individual formula of MBE plus essays plus the MPT (multistate performance test) plus their own individualized questions, the results were bad.  A lot of our students failed the bar exam.  Pass rates were down in New York, in California, Georgia, Florida, in Texas, and lots of other places.  Yet at the same time, individual schools saw significant success in raising pass rates in the face of grim news all around them.  All of this makes for glib headlines and much handwringing, but in the context of a blog post on “Best Practices for Legal Education” it is more helpful to take a step back and assess the tools we, as legal educators, have available to us in addressing bar passage in our individual schools.  I do so from my Ph.D. studies in higher education as well as from my experience as a dean, associate dean, law professor, and medical school professor.

One of my main themes this week will be to argue for individualized problem solving.  If anyone comes to you with a product to solve all your bar passage problems, I hope after this week you will be able to ask some questions about the data on which they base their claims.    Because a productive discussion of bar exam passage really rests on two questions—1. Why aren’t the students at your law school passing the bar exam at the rate they “should” and 2. What should you do about it?

I am going to use this week to share with you some of the resources available to law schools, to individual faculty members, and even to law students who want to increase their chances of passing the bar the first time.  Along the way, I hope to address some of the unhelpful myths that have arisen and to endorse a very old idea borrowed from the then revolutionary 1960s era child rearing techniques of Dr. Benjamin Spock: These are your students—and you know more than you think do.  Trust your judgement.  Ask questions.  That doesn’t mean that you can do everything yourself—it’s fine to consult with experts, but in the end addressing bar exam passage issues is a school wide effort and everyone has relevant information to add and a valuable role to play.

To get started, it’s helpful to have an overview of the players.  As a matter of foundational Constitutional Law, each state retains the power to license and regulate professionals.  (more detail here).   As a result, every state and territory has its own process for setting criteria for bar passage.   Almost every state contracts with the National Conference of Bar Examiners which develops the annual exam, grades it, and spends a lot of time explaining itself.  If you have any interest in this topic, a free subscription to The Bar Examiner will quickly bring you up to speed.

Tomorrow–how a test from the 1950’s trips up today’s digital natives (or “Do we need a Tardis to match law school curriculum to the bar exam?”)

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