Refuting the False Trope on Clinical Courses and Bar Passage

Robert Kuehn, Washington University School of Law

It has been observed that “the fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion.” Until recently, this could be said about the possible influence of enrollment in clinical courses on a student’s likelihood of passing the bar examination. While there was a shortage of empirical studies on any possible relationship, there have been plenty of opinions on how taking those courses might be harmful, opinions often reflected in graduation restrictions on clinical courses and requirements for bar subject-matter courses.

But, there are now significantly more facts to refute those opinions. Two recent, large-scale studies have both found no relationship between the number of law clinic or externship courses or credits a law graduate took and her likelihood of passing the bar exam.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Education, academic records of ten years of law school graduates of Washington University in St. Louis and Wayne State University were reviewed for any relationship between the number of law clinic, externship, or, more generally, experiential courses or credits and bar passage. After first accounting for the possible influence of law school grades on bar passage (the most significant predictor of bar success), the study found no correlation at either school between law clinic or externship enrollment and bar passage — no relationship between participation in a law clinic or externship and passage, none between the number of clinical courses and passage, none between the number of clinical credits and passage, and no evidence that students graduating with lower GPAs were disproportionately enrolling in those courses as a way to avoid doctrinal courses (another not uncommon trope). This lack of any relationship was in spite of increased enrollment in experiential courses at both schools over the ten-year period and decreased enrollment in courses teaching material tested on the bar (referred to as bar subject-matter courses).

The article notes that nationwide data on experiential course enrollment and bar passage also belie any claim the two are related. That data indicate that as enrollment in experiential courses was increasing from 2006-2016, bar passage percentages were fairly steady and that the recent decline in passage coincided with decreased, not increased, enrollment in those courses.

A recent study commissioned by the California State Bar found a similar lack of relationship between law clinic and externship courses and bar exam performance. The study reviewed law school coursework and performance on three July exams for over 7,500 bar applicants from eleven California schools. It found no relationship between the number of academic credits from law clinic courses and exam performance, either across all schools or even when reviewing schools separately. Similarly, there was no relationship between the number of externship or internship credits and performance, again when examined across all schools or within schools. The broad range of entering credentials at the eleven schools, and lack of a relationship even within those schools, indicates that the results should be applicable to most law schools, including those with lower LSATs and undergraduate GPAs for entering students.

The study results from Washington University/Wayne State and the California State Bar are similar to smaller studies at Texas Tech and the University of Denver that also reported no statistically significant relationship between enrollment in a law clinic or externship course and bar passage.

The Washington University/Wayne State and California State Bar studies further revealed that opinions about the value of bar subject-matter courses should be moderated. There were small correlations at both schools between the number of bar subject courses and bar passage. But this result (explaining less than 5% of the variability in bar outcomes) was only for low performing students and additional courses showed no marginal benefit once students took the school’s average number of bar courses.

The California State Bar study focused on whether taking a specific course was related to performance on the bar exam topic taught in those courses. It found that neither attendance nor performance in courses covering any of the 13 bar-related topics was related to performance on the corresponding California bar exam or Multistate Bar Exam content covering that subject.

Studies at other schools also indicate that enrollment in bar subject-related courses do not support broad claims about the benefit of taking those courses.

It is time to put away the misinformed trope of participation in law clinic and externship courses harming a student’s chances of passing the bar exam and let the facts do the talking. Law schools should recognize and students should be told they can obtain valuable preparation for the practice of law by enrolling in clinical courses without affecting their likelihood of passing the bar exam.

An Overview of “A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes”

Robert Kuehn, Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, and David Moss, Associate Clinical Professor at Wayne State University Law School, recently conducted a large-scale study looking at the relationship between clinical/experiential or bar subject-matter courses and bar passage success in a paper entitled, “A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes.” As a law student currently enrolled in a clinic, this study immediately piqued my interest.

This study was in response to fear that bar passage rates were down because of rising enrollment in “experiential courses” as opposed to “bar-subject courses.” Law schools began pushing students to enroll in more of these bar-subject courses to correct this so-called issue. However, Professor Kuehn and Professor Moss observed that there was no evidence to suggest that taking more bar-subject courses was appropriate advice for all students. Their study looked at this missing evidence between bar-subject courses and experiential learning and bar exam outcomes for ten years between two law schools: Washington University School of Law (WashU) and Wayne State University Law School (Wayne State). Both schools only require the designed first year courses and the upper-level writing courses mandated by ABA accreditation standards.

Previous studies performed in states like Texas, Colorado, and California looked at the effects of coursework and bar passage rates. These studies did not support the claim that taking more bar-tested law school course improve chances of passing on the first attempt. Notably, a study done in Indiana concluded, “simply forcing lower-performing students to take more upper division bar-subject courses will not solve the bar examination failure problem.”

The first goal of the present study was to determine whether a graduate’s enrollment in elective experiential courses was related to first-time bar passage success. Next, it was to assess whether enrollment in elective courses that cover bar subjects was related to bar success.

Data was collected from law school graduates from 2006-2015. The following table outlines the number of graduates with LSAT scores and bar passage rates between the two schools:

The next table looked at graduate characteristics such as undergraduate GPA, LSAT score, 1L GPA, and law GPA and their correlation with bar passage:

It wasn’t until 2005 that the ABA began requiring graduates to receive professional skills instruction with as little as one credit satisfying the requirement. In 2014, the ABA changed this to require six credits beginning with 2019 graduates. The study authors decided to track enrollment in skills courses versus bar passage over this time period.

The table above reveals a solid line depicting that average bar passage percentages were steady from 2006-2013 (this is when experiential course enrollment increased by over 50%). During the significant rise in experiential enrollment, bar passage percentages were largely steady. “Therefore, efforts to link declining nationwide bar passage rates to the rise in experiential course enrollment are not supported by national statistics.” A more likely contributing cause for bar passage declines since 2014 is weaker credentials of incoming 1Ls.

At WashU, it was found that while taking at least the average number of bar courses is associated with increased likelihood of passing the bar, there was no statistically significant increase in bar passage associated with bottom-quartile LGPA graduates who took more than the school’s average. This was similar with graduates in the bottom half of their class at Wayne State. Results for both schools indicate that graduates in bottom quartile who take fewer than the average number of bar courses at their school were associated with a significant increase in bar failure. Further, at both schools, students entering with scores lower than 150 were associated with pass rates significantly below the school’s average.

This study concluded that the claim that the dramatic decline in bar passage rates is due to law students taking more experiential courses or fewer bar-related courses is not supported. It characterized efforts to cap experiential credits in order to improve bar passages rates are “misguided,” warning that schools should not expect that “mere exposure” to more bar courses will significantly improve bar passage rates.

Also see “Legal Skills Prof Blog” and “TaxProf Blog” for more posts on this study

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