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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.]