Bar Exams, Law Schools

Should 3L Year Be A Glorified Bar Exam Prep Course?

And now time for another attempt to “re-imagine” the otherwise useless third year of law school. This time, ALM editor-in-chief Aric Press weighs in with a thoughtful piece about how law schools could be doing a much better job at preparing people to take and pass the bar exam, especially minority students. Whether or not the bar exam is a good test of practice-ready skills barred attorneys need is a different question: at the very least, we can argue that law schools should be preparing would-be lawyers to be licensed.

It’s an interesting idea, but let’s be clear: most people, most of the time, can pass the bar with the help of an eight-week dedicated prep course. “Preparing students for the bar” cannot by itself justify an entire year of some of the most expensive education around. Getting people ready for the bar isn’t a “reform,” it should be a basic requirement for any accredited law school. And many law schools are already doing a decent enough job at graduating law students who can pass the bar. I’m not sure that we should change the focus of education for everybody just because some schools are not achieving basic competence…

Press’s article in the American Lawyer (sub. req.) focuses on the work of Brad Smith, chair of the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity. Smith argues that minority under-performance on the bar exam could be addressed by more focused law schools to prepare people for the exam while in school. Interestingly, Smith notes that medical schools have a lot of success getting their minority students licensed, and thinks that law schools can learn something from those institutions.

I think that the issue of minority pass rates isn’t that “complicated.” Minority students disproportionately don’t have access to expensive bar prep courses (and private tutors, if need be) that economically advantaged white students take. Minority students are less likely to have family members or role models who have been through law school before, which means they are less likely to know a person they trust who will say, “JESUS CHRIST, BORROW MONEY AND TAKE A COURSE!” I’m sure there are 15 other factors around the margins, ranging from some minority students with lower LSAT scores being simply poorer standardized test takers than their counterparts to the occasional bar exam question failing to achieve “race-neutrality,” but my guess would be that these concerns are minor. If minority students had the same access to information and training as everybody else, pass rates would rise.

In a way, forcing bar prep into the third year of law school is a way to “standardize” the bar prep process, which seems like a laudable goal. It also allows educators a longer opportunity to identify “at risk” students of any race who are falling behind and might need extra help before the big test. Press writes:

Instead of tolerating isolated duchies, could the profession ask law schools to serve as real gateways to practice, and then expect bar examiners to test skills and knowledge accumulated over three years rather than in eight-week cram courses?

We don’t have to start from a blank slate. Part of the American Bar Association’s certification standards for law schools is a requirement that “a school… prepares its students for admission.” What would it take to move that from a bromide to an action item? We are in the midst of a new debate over the third-year curriculum, one that even President Obama, Harvard Law ’91, has joined with a skeptical eye. It’s easy to imagine schools devoting part of that final year to preparing at least their most challenged students for the exam. After having students in class for two years, it’s fair to expect even disengaged, research-driven faculties to identify the students who need more feedback and help.

This sounds like a great idea… for Cooley. It sounds like a great idea for Thomas Jefferson. It sounds like a great idea for any number of law schools that profit by trawling in the waters of students with poor test scores, then charge a ton of money to people who they know are unlikely to pass the bar exam. But bar prep would be a terrible waste of time for the third year of a Yale Law education. Duke Law students of all colors seem to do just fine at ignoring the bar exam for three years, and then cramming it all in two months after graduation. Having “one size fits all” legal education is kind of how we got in the mess in the first place.

Somewhere in the great chasm between the Yale Law System and the InfiLaw System lies the vast majority of law schools that seem to excel at producing graduates who can get the license but cannot get a job. What good is getting a law license if nobody will hire you to use it?

Eliminating the third year of law school is appealing because it’s the easiest way to lower the costs of law school. Since we’re living in a world where so-called educators are too greedy to do that, the focuses of a reformed third year should revolve around giving people more value for the expensive year they’re being forced to pay for. At low-end schools, maybe that value is simply getting people into a position where they can actually pass the bar, but you could just as easily say that schools that can’t already produce students capable of passing the bar should be shut down whole cloth.

And in the middle, why not focus on helping people who will be able to pass the bar get jobs? Why not change 3L year into a year long on-campus interviewing system, replete with networking and client generation classes? Yes, I know that most law faculties don’t have the skills to teach that, but still.

If we’re going to reform something, let’s focus on what people need, not remedial teaching that profiteering law schools have failed to provide.

Why Law Schools Must Help Their Students Pass The Bar [American Lawyer (sub. req.)]

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