The Science of Passing the Bar Exam: Does First-Year Torts Really Matter?

Every year, thousands of law school graduates leap into the nerve-wracking and costly process of preparing for the bar exam. The bar consists of two days of testing (three in California) on memorization and comprehension of specific areas of law. Failure is hardly uncommon: various estimates place the passage rate at roughly 70 percent, while the failure rate in California was a whopping 56 percent in 2004.

Although the subjects tested on the exam are openly advertised, rarely change, and include popular topics like criminal and property law, many people find themselves facing the bar having taken few, if any, law school classes on these subjects. While many law schools do require that students take a certain number of classes on bar topics, others don’t, and many students elect not to load up on “overlapping” courses.

In either case, a question arises: how much does a student’s law school courseload affect his or her chances of passing the bar?

Douglas Rush, a former lawyer and assistant dean at the St. Louis University Law School (he’s currently working toward a Ph.D. in higher education), has been gathering research on this question. He and his co-author, St. Louis Univ. research methodology associate professor Hisako Matsuo, have written the paper “Does Law School Curriculum Affect Bar Examination Passage?” scheduled for publication in the upcoming Journal of Legal Education. In it, Rush writes:

The “conventional wisdom” among law school faculties and deans is that law students, especially law students who academically rank low in their class, should take as many of the courses whose subject matter is tested on state bar exams (i.e. contracts, torts, property, etc.) as possible in order to improve their chance of passing state bar exams…. Many law schools mandate that low-ranked law students take these courses in their second and third years of law school in the belief that doing so increases the ability of those students to pass state bar examinations.

To test this theory, Rush and Matsuo documented every student’s courseload for five different graduating classes at the St. Louis Law School, analyzing the number of bar topic courses taken against bar passage rates the first time the students sat for the exam. Their results were unequivocal: no relationship existed between law school courseloads and the passage rate of students ranked in the first, second or fourth quarters of their law school class, while only a weak relationship existed for students who ranked in the third quarter. Overall, Rush writes, “students in the upper two quartiles passed the exam at an extremely high rate and those in the fourth quartile failed at a high rate, regardless of which classes they took in law school.” The researchers repeated the test in 2007 using data from the Hofstra University School of Law, with identical results (which do not appear in the study).

Whether these results should be taken as ammunition for students trying to weasel out of bar-covered courses or as a hint to law professors to start shifting their teaching focus towards practical information remains to be seen. But the study does support a conclusion that most law students and lawyers already know: no matter what you took or how well you did in law school, the bar exam is an experience all its own.

[Disclosure: I took and passed the New York bar exam on the second try in 2005, having taken a total of four courses in law school that overlapped with the thirty-plus topics on the bar and graduating somewhere in the middle to lower half of my law school class.]

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  1. Katwoman says:

    This isn’t surprising to me. I took (and passed) the California bar in 1994 after doing well in a good law school. Taking the bar review course was a revelation – oh, THAT’S what my incomprehensible economic-theory-obsessed contracts professor was pontificating about? Too many professors are incapable of conveying the pragmatic fundamentals before moving on to the so-called theoretical level that often serves more to obfuscate and confuse than to enlighten. You can’t teach quantum physics when you haven’t bothered to teach algebra first.

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  2. Katwoman says:

    This isn’t surprising to me. I took (and passed) the California bar in 1994 after doing well in a good law school. Taking the bar review course was a revelation – oh, THAT’S what my incomprehensible economic-theory-obsessed contracts professor was pontificating about? Too many professors are incapable of conveying the pragmatic fundamentals before moving on to the so-called theoretical level that often serves more to obfuscate and confuse than to enlighten. You can’t teach quantum physics when you haven’t bothered to teach algebra first.

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  3. Bali says:

    Many lawyers from countries other than the US take the CA bar exam. This is because passing the CA bar allows you to practice in several US states. Now, given that the US Bar exam tests an individuals understanding of American laws and the constitution -arguably lawyers from countries other than the US don’t fare too well. This could be one of the reasons why the CA failure rate is inflated.

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  4. Bali says:

    Many lawyers from countries other than the US take the CA bar exam. This is because passing the CA bar allows you to practice in several US states. Now, given that the US Bar exam tests an individuals understanding of American laws and the constitution -arguably lawyers from countries other than the US don’t fare too well. This could be one of the reasons why the CA failure rate is inflated.

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  5. Smedley Underfoot says:

    I just took the NY Bar. A classmate of mine, taking it at the same time, used to work in certification testing for a major industry. She said that, having studied testing theory, both the NY Exam and the multistate were poorly designed if what you were trying to do was test knowledge and comprehension of the law.

    If your goal was to make sure your passage rate was less than 60%… it was well designed for that.

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  6. Smedley Underfoot says:

    I just took the NY Bar. A classmate of mine, taking it at the same time, used to work in certification testing for a major industry. She said that, having studied testing theory, both the NY Exam and the multistate were poorly designed if what you were trying to do was test knowledge and comprehension of the law.

    If your goal was to make sure your passage rate was less than 60%… it was well designed for that.

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  7. Conor says:

    California breaks down their bar exam results on their website with great detail, which provide some insight in to who is passing and failing the exam. They have the results broken down by first time takers pass rate, repeaters pass rate, pass rate broken down by race and gender (for those self-reporting)and by school attended.

    The pass rate is much higher during the July examination than it is during the February examination, at least comparing July 2006 with February 2007.

    Here are some highlights:

    July 2006 General bar exam takers (excluding attorneys sitting from other states):
    -Overall pass rate: 51.8% (4,616 out of 8,908); -First-timers pass rate: 67.4% (4221 out of 6261); -Repeaters pass rate: 14.9% (395 out of 2647).

    February 2007: General bar exam takers (excluding attorneys sitting from other states):
    -Overall pass rate: 36.8% (1,900 out of 5,167); -First time takers: 53.1% (829 out of 1,560); -Repeaters: 29.7% (1071 out of 3,607).

    As you can see, the repeat exam takers drag the average down significantly. FWIW, the best group passage rate for July 2006 were students from U. of Texas (22 out of 23, or 96%). The best rate amongst demographic group was white males from ABA approved schools within California: 79% (2,486 total passing).

    I studied this data pretty closely when I was studying for the bar exam.

    Here are the links:

    http://www.calbar.ca.gov/calbar/pdfs/admissions/Statistics/JULY2006STATS.pdf
    http://www.calbar.ca.gov/calbar/pdfs/admissions/Statistics/FEBRUARY2007STATS.pdf

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  8. Conor says:

    California breaks down their bar exam results on their website with great detail, which provide some insight in to who is passing and failing the exam. They have the results broken down by first time takers pass rate, repeaters pass rate, pass rate broken down by race and gender (for those self-reporting)and by school attended.

    The pass rate is much higher during the July examination than it is during the February examination, at least comparing July 2006 with February 2007.

    Here are some highlights:

    July 2006 General bar exam takers (excluding attorneys sitting from other states):
    -Overall pass rate: 51.8% (4,616 out of 8,908); -First-timers pass rate: 67.4% (4221 out of 6261); -Repeaters pass rate: 14.9% (395 out of 2647).

    February 2007: General bar exam takers (excluding attorneys sitting from other states):
    -Overall pass rate: 36.8% (1,900 out of 5,167); -First time takers: 53.1% (829 out of 1,560); -Repeaters: 29.7% (1071 out of 3,607).

    As you can see, the repeat exam takers drag the average down significantly. FWIW, the best group passage rate for July 2006 were students from U. of Texas (22 out of 23, or 96%). The best rate amongst demographic group was white males from ABA approved schools within California: 79% (2,486 total passing).

    I studied this data pretty closely when I was studying for the bar exam.

    Here are the links:

    http://www.calbar.ca.gov/calbar/pdfs/admissions/Statistics/JULY2006STATS.pdf
    http://www.calbar.ca.gov/calbar/pdfs/admissions/Statistics/FEBRUARY2007STATS.pdf

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