The Truth (As I See It) About USD Law and the Bar Exam

Article submitted by Emily Scivoletto,
Assistant Dean for J.D. Student Affairs

Last week, I received an email from Motions Associate Editor Jessie Payne asking me to respond to this question: What do you think USD is doing to improve the bar pass rate in 2011?

Since this has been a topic of some discussion amongst the faculty and administration, I am providing a general response to her question in the form of this article. I do not pretend to represent any specific faculty member or administrator (I would not be so bold), but I will tell you the truth as I see it about “what USD is doing” to assist our students with the bar exam.

To begin, I need us to be on the same page. First, when I say our bar pass rate is 65%, I’m using that number because that is what USD first-time takers achieved during the July 2010 California bar exam. There are graduates who take the February bar exam for the first time each year and others who take bar exams in other states every July. This is not to say numbers for any of these other categories of bar takers are drastically different: The pass rate for our 24 out-of-state bar takers in 2010 was an incredible 96%, but combined with our California numbers, our overall rate is only 69%. However, in the interest of accuracy, I want us all to understand that it is the July numbers that generate interest and comparison charts with other law schools on “Above the Law” or “TaxProfBlog.”

Second, while USD is interested in how the bar pass rate will affect the U.S. News & World Report rankings, that’s not our primary concern. Why?

One reason is that the weight given to bar pass rate within this ranking is so low that it is virtually a non-issue.

Infinitely more concerning to USD is that 90 USD graduates are unable to practice law for another six months because they failed the bar exam. That’s not acceptable. Nor was it acceptable when we had 57 graduates from the class of 2009 and 48 from the class of 2008 who could not practice law immediately. I relate this so you understand two things: USD has been working on implementing the changes and programs I describe below for several years, not just because of our recent pass rate, and even 99% is not good enough when the ability to work in one’s chosen profession is at stake.

So, what are we doing? From my perspective, your professors are here to prepare you for legal practice, and, thankfully, they provide a much more in-depth study of a subject than a bar exam requires. Still, upon my arrival in August of 2010, several professors who teach bar-subject courses were interested in reviewing the sub-topics tested on the bar. I also met with two professors interested in adding bar-subject courses to the curriculum. And, I know of another professor who has decided to make his final exam “closed book,” much more akin to the bar exam.

Additionally, in May 2009, your faculty voted to implement the Academic Supervision program that (among other things) requires students with a certain GPA after their first or second year to take a Legal Analysis course in conjunction with a designated bar subject course. For example, if a student has a 2.50 after his or her first year and elects to take Evidence, that student is required to concurrently take Legal Analysis of Evidence, which provides exercises and assignments in Evidence. Early reports from our students in the program show improvement in exam writing skills and retention of substantive law material.

In spring of 2009 (and again in 2010), USD contracted with BarBri Bar Review to bring the first Early Bar Preparation Lecture Series to campus. More than 100 students attended these sessions and received feedback on a bar exam essay and performance test. In addition, USD paid Barbri to provide extra essay workshops during the summer to our students preparing for the July 2010 bar exam. Unfortunately, not all students took advantage of these workshops, but many who did indicated a sincere belief it assisted them in passing the exam.

For the Class of 2011 and beyond, we have implemented the following additional bar preparation measures:

• Introduction to the Bar Exam Workshop and Packet: a fall workshop providing an overview of all things bar exam and a step-by-step checklist for becoming a licensed attorney.

• Fundamentals of Bar Writing: a one-unit spring semester course covering the bar exam essay and performance test writing typically employed on the bar exam.

• Early Bar Preparation Lecture Series: workshops on the MBE, performance test, and essays where students can receive financial incentives for attending and completing assignments.

• Bar Preparation on Campus: We have contracted with BarBri (and our hope is with Kaplan/PMBR as well) to be on campus this summer, allowing our students preparing for the bar exam easy access to food services, parking, and the LRC.

• Subsidized Performance Test Course: For the first time this summer, our students will have the ability to attend a 3-day performance test, which will be subsidized by USD in order to make it affordable to students.

Will these measures work? Will our bar pass rate increase? I don’t know. I hope so. I think so. But if it were as easy as simply offering all of these programs to our students, it would really just become a matter of time and money. But it’s not.

So now that I’ve told you what we’re doing, what are YOU going to do? Will you attend a bar prep course at USD during the summer (please)? Will you take a leave of absence from your job during the summer you are preparing for the exam (or work very little)? Will you attend the workshops we provide for you in the fall and spring of your last year here? Will you meet with me so we can discuss your own individual bar study plan? The truth is, what matters most is making sure YOU pass the bar. If we continue to care about each individual student passing the exam, our bar pass rate will take care of itself.

Jessie, I hope that answers your question!

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