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?

 

 

A Fresh Look at the Uniform Bar Examination

The bar exam is back in the news. Later this month the ABA House of Delegates will consider a proposal to raise the bar-passage standard. The proposal would require that 75% of an accredited law school’s graduates pass a bar exam within two years of graduation.

In most states, bar exam means the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Uniform Bar Exam. The UBE has been adopted by 35 jurisdictions and is under consideration in others. It carries the endorsement of many ABA-related entities. They include the Conference of Chief Justices, the Law Student and Law Practice Divisions, the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, and the House of Delegates.

As a reminder of the features of the UBE, and an update on the pace of its adoption, I have accepted Mary Lynch’s gracious invitation to reblog my recent post “Will the Uniform Bar Exam Come to Michigan?” from the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School blog. (Spoiler alert: no time soon.)

Leadership Education in Law School: You’re Already Providing It

Regardless of whether they think of themselves as leaders, our law students will play a leadership role for the rest of their lives. Certainly many will be leaders in their local legal community, in their law offices, and in various bar associations. But beyond that, all lawyers will be expected to lead outside of their law practices. As a lawyer (and sometimes the only lawyer) in their community group, family, or organization, they will be looked to for leadership.

Just as our students may not recognize themselves as leaders, we may not recognize ourselves as teachers of leadership. But we are. Most of our classes provide excellent opportunities to talk about leadership, even if “leadership” is not in the title. And we model leadership in how we treat our students and other members of the law school, how we contribute to and connect with our communities, and how we help move our law schools forward to address the changing profession.

Recognizing the growing interest in leadership education for lawyers, the AALS Section on Leadership was chartered in November 2017. The section describes its purpose as promoting “scholarship, teaching, and related activities that will help prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles.” This section is a great place to start for a law professor who wants to learn more about leadership education.

Law professors interested in getting some innovative ideas for integrating leadership-related topics into their classes should consider attending a workshop and roundtable at the University of Tennessee College of Law on April 4-5, 2019. The program is titled Leadership Development for Lawyers. The “workshop” day of the program will give attendees the chance to choose two of four interactive sessions: collaborating with career services; integrating well-being into leadership curricula; assessing leadership development efforts; and effective leadership skill development exercises. Then, the “roundtable” day of the program will provide an opportunity for conference attendees and panelists to share ideas and experiences in leadership education.

The goal of the Tennessee workshop and roundtable is to bring together a large group of legal educators who are working in the area of lawyer leadership education–including professors who don’t (currently) think of themselves as “leadership” teachers.

 

 

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

It’s not unusual for a provost or a colleague or a relative at Thanksgiving to ask a legal academic why law students have so much trouble passing the bar exam when the pass rates for medical students are usually in the high 90th percent.  The short answer to that question is that the two processes are completely different—and there’s no obvious trick, technique, or intervention that could convert our bar passage rates into their licensure passage rates.   For one thing, it’s the wrong question.  “Passing” the medical licensing exams is certainly important, but unlike the “all or nothing” process of passing the bar exam, the score achieved on Step 1 affects medical students’ entire career path.  But there is a lot to learn about the methods that medical schools use in studying the very few students who have trouble as well as how they evaluate the effect of changes to their curriculums on scores on the licensing exams.

Quick recap on professional licensing—future doctors take a series of three exams over the first six years of their undergraduate medical education and the start of their residency.  (more links in a post I wrote earlier this year here).  The exams are almost entirely national although the actual process of being licensed is conducted on a state by state basis.   Law students take a licensing exam in the state where they intend to practice upon graduation.  For purposes of this post, the closest analogy to the bar exam is the more academic Step One students take during their second year of medical school.  Like  our NCBE, the National Board of Medical Examiners which produces United States Medical Licensing Examination works with medical licensing boards and depends on their confidence.  It issues annual reports.

The focus of this post is on the methods that medical schools use to study the small number of their students who do have trouble passing the licensing the exams as well as the factors that can affect the scores students achieve.  I’ve tried to focus on articles outside of paywalls, and would certainly encourage you to conduct your own searches in the various data bases to which you have access.  There are several journals devoted directly to studying medical education—although these articles can pop up anywhere.

Medical educators use a wide range of research techniques to learn more about students who struggle with licensure exams.  Like us, medical schools would prefer students pass the first time and many articles like this one look for characteristics who fail the first time but eventually pass.  Others look for characteristics of students at risk for failure here and here  or even  what students think of the exam.    Another area for inquiry involves the role stress plays in the score students achieve.   In partnership with social scientists at our schools or in our communities, we too could be conducting studies to help us learn more about students who face difficulty passing the bar exam.  These studies can be part of graduate student work or may even be funded by groups like Access which is making money available to study bar passage.

 

The actual reason the medical school pass rates are so high, though, may not be all that helpful.

It’s not just because they are able to limit admission to students who have already demonstrated an ability to score very highly on the MCAT.  A test that is much more similar to step 1 than the bar exam is to the LSAT.  Indeed, medical schools have direct input in both the MCAT and the Licensing Exams—so when one changes, the other can too. And it’s not clear that anything in the curriculum makes a difference at all—the industry offering study aids and licensure prep courses dwarfs the bar prep and study aid market to a point where students often start studying for the licensing exams before the first day of medical school.

But if it is the curriculum, it’s important to remember the vast difference in time scale between medical and legal education.  We have students for three years post B.A. Medical schools in the U.S. plan their curriculum based on  8 plus years of increasingly specialized medical education.  They are therefore comfortable holding off on the direct teaching of practice skills for the first two years while they are aligning their curriculum with the content of the Step 1 exam.

Even Step 1, though, is far more focused on practice than on knowledge accumulation or deliberately confusing question formulations that characterize the bar exam. Step 2,  the second round of licensing exams prior to graduation medical school,  go past paper and pencil in that they actually test students’ ability to conduct exams and exercise medical judgement.  Another reason for the high pass rate is that most medical schools have stopped developing their own tests and instead use assessment instruments (shelf exams) provided by the same company that produces the exam.   Sure, there is grumbling and criticism about content & timing of the licensing exams, but medical schools work hard to make sure that their curriculums are aligned with the content of the exams.  Finally, medical education is extremely self-reflecting–they are constantly aware of the risks that come from confusing correlation and causation.  How do you know that a change in one part of the curriculum is the cause of a change in test scores?  You run Pearson correlations followed by stepwise linear regressions.  Seeing is not believing when comes to identifying factors that affect performance on licensure exams.   Look here, here, here, and here for studies evaluating curriculum changes.  They take nothing for granted—does attendance make a difference, does flipping classrooms really work? Does reducing the number of hours spend in the anatomy lab reduce USMLE scores?

Another standard practice in medical schools is curriculum mapping— an essential first step for any school that wants to understand what they are teaching—let alone make changes.   Like all maps, curriculum maps are DESCRIPTIVE, not PROSCRIPTIVE.  Here is   Harvard’s curriculum map, but you can find examples on the home page of just about every U.S. Medical School.This is a an article walking through how to map a curriculum.

So what’s helpful to us isn’t so much what medical schools are doing, but how they are evaluating themselves. 

In recap, neither I nor anyone else who has ever practiced law thinks it would be a good idea to emulate medical schools by fully aligning our curriculum with the bar exam so as to turn the three years of law school into one extended bar prep course.  Among other reasons, the material tested on the bar is quite static and doesn’t reflect the realities of today’s law practice.   It also wouldn’t make much sense for schools whose students take the bar exam in many different jurisdictions.   Also, the bar exam is just not equivalent to the three rounds of USMLE exams in actually testing both the knowledge and application of knowledge needed to be a successful lawyer.  If it was, we wouldn’t hear so many complaints about how students who have passed bar are never-the-less not “practice ready.”

Tomorrow—where can we get the help we need to find out this information, and who is going to pay for it?  Spoiler--Access Lex has a program.

On the Value of Gap Years and Non-Legal Experience to Legal Employers (and Law Schools)

Reviewing the results of the Foundations for Practice survey conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), I cannot help but note how the 24,000 responding attorneys ranked the helpfulness of various criteria for hiring beginning lawyers. (See here.) Just under 80 percent (78.3%, to be exact) identified “life experience between college and law school” as either a very helpful or somewhat helpful hiring criterion. Moreover, while “legal employment” (88.4% ranking as very or somewhat helpful) and “legal externship” (81.5%) unsurprisingly sat near the top of the list, “other experiential education” — meaning non-legal — was very close behind at 79.4%.

The responding attorneys, from a wide variety of practice areas and from throughout the country, ranked these two non-legal experience criteria — “life experience between college and law school” and “other experiential education” — as slightly more helpful than certain types of legal experience, including federal court clerkships, state court clerkships, and participation in law school clinics. The starker divide, however, came when considering traditional hiring criteria related to law school performance. While well over three quarters of respondents classified both personal and professional experience of a non-legal nature as helpful hiring criteria, only 62.5% said the same about law school class rank. Similarly, only 61.1% said so about law school attended, and merely 51.2% said so about law review experience.

One narrative coming out of the survey could indeed be that practical experience matters more than academic experience, and that seems to be what IAALS is highlighting. But, consistent with the results discussed above, I would suggest another as well: Non-legal experience — both personal and professional — matters almost as much, if not just as much, as legal experience.

The survey was just the first phrase of IAALS’s broader project, entitled Foundations for Practice, and the second phrase, which is being implemented now, directly implicates law schools. IAALS is working with four law schools to “translate the survey results into actionable learning outcomes and hiring rubrics.”

The current phrase focusing on law school outcomes turns my mind to the “incoming” side of law school admissions. The results of the survey suggest to me that law schools should more explicitly prioritize admission of students with meaningful life experience or non-legal professional experience. In addition, if it is not already, LSAC ought to be gathering and reporting to law schools pertinent data as to what percentage of law school applicants are undergraduate students who would be going directly to law school. And, as to those who are not, what are the percentages one year out from the undergraduate degree, two years, three or more, etc.? Just as law schools view national statistics on other important admissions criteria (GPA, LSAT, ethnic diversity, to mention a few) as important benchmarks, they ought to be in a position to do the same for number of years since undergraduate degree.

Having a significant percentage of students with meaningful life experience outside of the law is indisputably of great benefit to the law school learning environment. I see it every year in my classroom. More to the point of the IAALS survey results, by bringing in a significant number of students with such experience, law schools will be contributing to better outcomes — learning outcomes and employment outcomes. In a typical incoming J.D. class at my home school, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, 20% to 30% of the students are three or more years removed from their undergraduate degree. We do not have a part-time or night program, and certainly those schools that do will have higher percentages of that demographic.

At least one-third and in some years close to one-half of the students in our typical incoming class are coming straight out of their undergraduate studies without even one gap year. This demographic exists at nearly every law school in the country (in varying percentages). Given what we know about the next generation of law students, and given the importance of life experience and non-legal experience as hiring criteria to today’s legal employers, these students would seem to face a more challenging path. What do law schools need to do, if anything? Offer or enhance existing professional development programming or curricula? Offer or enhance existing experiential opportunities that are not exclusively legal in nature and that expose students to non-lawyers and other disciplines and experiences? (Just two examples: teaching or working with high school students, or working with entrepreneurs at a tech startup. Law schools affiliated with a university can offer assorted interdisciplinary educational opportunities as well.)  I will be interested to see if the second phrase of the IAALS project emphasizes ideas like these or others that respond to the demonstrated need for lawyers with life experience and non-legal professional experience.

New Research on Law-Student Resiliency

Student resiliency and well-being are on-going concerns to the legal education community. Counselling, academic support, and activities like yoga have been introduced in law schools to address these concerns. Although these strategies are undoubtedly beneficial, a recent research paper suggests that legal educators may have an additional, all-encompassing solution under their noses – the cultural mindset we create in our classrooms.

In the paper The Jury Is In: Law Schools Foster Students’ Fixed Mindsets, Susan Shapcott, Sarah Davis, and Lane Hanson suggest that the law school experience promotes fixed mindsets in law students. Many educators are familiar with Carol Dweck’s work and the concept of mindsets; when students perceive intelligence as an innate trait that one either has or doesn’t have, this is a referred to as a fixed mindset. At the other end of the spectrum, perceiving intelligence as something that develops with effort, strategy and time is referred to as a growth mindset.

The authors reported that third year law students’ mindsets were significantly more fixed than first year students’ mindsets. How does this relate to resiliency and well-being? Quite simply, mindsets are predictive of students’ goals and resiliency to challenges (an inherent part of law school). As students’ mindsets become more fixed, they are more likely to adopt goals intended to demonstrate how smart they are. Consequently, they are less likely to ask for help when they most need it, they will perceive professors’ feedback as judgement, and they may interpret mistakes as evidence that they just don’t have what it takes to succeed. Not only are these behaviors motivationally problematic, they are problematic for mental well-being.

Across a range of fields, growth mindsets are associated with adaptive learning strategies and mentally healthy behaviors that promote well-being and resiliency. So arguably, this is the culture that we should be focused on developing in law schools. However, as Shapcott, et al., report, the opposite may be happening. The longer students are exposed to law-school culture, the more fixed their mindsets become. Therefore, it is time to recognize that there is something adrift in our culture. Furthermore, we cannot simply focus on students’ mindsets without reflecting on the role we as educators play in influencing them.

Students’ well-being won’t change much until law schools work to change the culture from within. Law school classrooms that help students develop growth, not fixed mindsets will do more for students’ resiliency and long-term growth. This starts with faculty members reframing how intelligence and lawyering skills are described (they are learned skills, not innate gifts). When faculty share their own vulnerabilities and struggles to grasp concepts, they create a classroom culture where students are less afraid to ask for help. And when professors give accurate feedback intended to teach students how and what is required for them to improve, rather than simply judging their intelligence, they will help create a growth-mindset culture that reduces students’ stress and increases their strategies for manage their learning experience.

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