USD Bar Passage Rate Rebounds, Still A Long Way To Go…

By: Christina Phan

A collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout Warren Hall this past January, as bar passage numbers that became public showed a marked improvement for USD first-time test takers.

It was only one year ago that USD received shocking and disappointing news, only 65 percent of first-time USD bar test takers passed the 2010 summer bar exam.  This was below the first-time California state average of 68.3 percent, and far below the 78.1 percent USD passage rate in 2009.  When news of the low passage rate came out, many current students were very fearful and questioned why the bar passage rate dropped so significantly.  Undoubtedly, USD administration and faculty were disappointed and worried about the passage rate as well.

When the school hired Dean Scivoletto to head the Office of JD Student Affairs, she immediately began working with faculty and negotiating with bar prep courses to help USD students in passing the bar exam.  Implementation of new programs and courses began prior to knowledge of the low passage rate of 2010.

Fast-forward a year and the USD bar passage rate has started to rebound.  The 2011 first-time California pass rate for USD students was an acceptable 76.2 percent.  The California state-wide bar passage rate for first-timers was 69 percent.  The pass rate for students graduating from ABA-accredited schools was 76.2 percent.  We are still not at the rate we should be or need to be, however this is an improvement.

Our score was higher than schools such as UC-Davis (74.4 percent), San Francisco (74.2 percent), McGeorge (68.9 percent) and last place, fellow San Diego school Thomas Jefferson (33.3 percent).  However, USD is still ranked rather low and currently has a bar passage rate below Santa Clara, California Western, Western State, Chapman, Loyola, and Pepperdine.

Dean Scivoletto believes that one of the biggest focuses of the July 2011 graduates was that they “worked consistently and relentlessly toward the goal of ‘one and done.’”  Dean Scivioletto worked with more than 150 of the test takers, read their essays and practice tests and felt that they “were very prepared for” the exam.  She felt that they were proactive in their actions and never stopped “working and listening to feedback.”

Dean Scivoletto notes that preparing for the bar exam includes knowing the substantive law and how to articulate the information on an exam.  There are three components that should be remembered in taking any law school exam and also the bar exam: 1) know what the examination is going to cover and the format of the exam; 2) create your own study document (e.g. flash cards, outline, flow chart) to memorize; and 3) review and take under timed conditions any and all practice exams and hypos the professor makes available.  Helping students hone in on these skill sets and giving them opportunities to practice and learn more about the bar exam process is extremely important, and a major goal of the law school.

The school has made incredible improvements, but there is still a long way to go before the school is where it should be.  Realistically, it is very difficult to have 100% passage rate, because life happens, and also the school cannot motivate students if they do not want to motivate themselves.  However, we should be able to have 85-plus percent of students pass the bar exam the first time.  Bar preparation has two parties: the school and the test-taker.  The school has the duty to prepare students to be excellent practitioners in the field and to pass the bar exam.  Test-takers have the responsibility to commit themselves to the learning process and bar taking process.  Students need to focus and take time to learn how to how to write for and pass the bar exam, dedicating themselves fully to the process.  The school can only do so much; the students need to take the initiative and focus on passing the bar themselves.

Dean Scivoletto notes that the school is truly working to build the “one and done” mentality and working to continue “building on [their current] efforts…to increase student awareness of the bar exam process and assist students in strengthening the skills necessary to be successful on the exam.”  The long-term goal of the school is to have “programs in place to ensure a consistent, high pass rate each and every year.”

As noted in her 2011 Motions article (see http://www.motionsonline.org/2011/02/09/the-truth-as-i-see-it-about-usd-law-and-the-bar-exam/) Dean Scivoletto stated that some additions in the past years include implementing an Academic Supervision program that works to help students with lower GPAs increase their GPA.  This program includes personal advising, mandates the students take a number of important bar classes such has Evidence, Criminal Procedure, and Constitutional Law.  Students in the program are requested to take a Legal Analysis course that focuses on helping the student to prevail in courses by assisting them to learn how to write for law school exams, outlines, and structure and analyze prompts and arguments.  This program began implementation in Fall 2010 and it seems that those students who were in the program showed “improvements in exam writing skills and retention of substantive law material.”

Students are also requested to enroll in the Fundamentals of Bar Writing course, which is open to graduating law students.  Currently there is room for approximately 110 students.  Dean Scivoletto notes that because of the positive feedback of the course, the faculty and administration are working to find ways to give more students the opportunity to take this course.  This seven-week intensive writing course works to teach and prepare students to produce successful writings for the bar exam.  Every week students take mock bar writing exams and the professors dedicate themselves to giving constructive and comprehensive feedback.

Further, the school has contracted with BarBri and Kapland Reviews to have Early Bar Preparation Lecture series on campus where students are given the opportunity to take free weekend courses that assist students on bar writing and learning techniques for core MBE courses.  The school has also negotiated with BarBri and Kaplan to provide additional essay workshops during the summer for students preparing for the bar exam.

USD School of Law seems to have made many adjustments to the curriculum and programs to help students pass the bar exam.  Based on the improvement of the first-time bar passage rate from 2010 to 2011, it seems that these changes are already helping.  As stated earlier, there are still improvements that need to be made.  There is still a high percentage of students who are not passing the bar exam, and the school still ranks rather low in bar passage rate compared to comparably and lower ranked schools.  However, USD seems to be headed in the right direction.  The results from the 2012 first time test-takers will be the true indicators of whether USD’s new programs have truly been successful.

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