Bar Exams, Law Schools, Student Loans

What’s More Expensive: 3 Years of Law School or 6 Weeks of Bar Prep?

This isn’t what I meant when I said law students need a helping hand.

I know, that’s not really a fair question. In most cases, you have to submit yourself to three expensive years of law school before they will even allow you to cram for six weeks in order to pass the bar. I just wanted to highlight that the expensive part of becoming a lawyer is the three years — the last of which is completely useless — not that sprint at the end to pass the bar exam.

That’s why it doesn’t make sense for a state to sell a “no bar exam for in-state students” option as a cost savings for students. You want to help students? Get rid of the third year of law school. You want to incentivize students to remain in-state for law school during a highly competitive market for law applications? Then you follow Wisconsin’s path and offer to ignore your own bar exam if people would just please, please, please go to an in-state school.

Another Midwestern state is considering doing just that, because it helps the schools, not because it helps students….

The Des Moines Register reports that the Iowa state bar is thinking of allowing graduates of the two in-state law schools to begin practice without passing the Iowa bar. Students would still have to pass the MPRE and go through some kind of character and fitness review. But actually knowing the law would be assumed for graduates of the University of Iowa College of Law and for Drake University Law graduates:

Backers of the proposal from an Iowa State Bar Association committee say the change could lessen the massive debt that University of Iowa and Drake University law school graduates face. A 4½-half-month gap exists between graduation and when exam-takers learn their test results. Many graduates take out loans to cover that period, which can cost about $29,000, according to the proposal.

On average, a graduate from the U of I’s law school has about $95,574 in debt, according to 2012-13 American Bar Association information. The average debt for Drake law school graduates is about $106,368…

“For most students, it really is just wasted time because they’re not able to practice, they aren’t able to get out and start earning money to pay off those student debts,” said Allan Vestal, Drake law school dean. “In a lot of cases, they’re still borrowing money to be able to live.”

Okay, slow your roll there, law deans in Iowa. I like lowering student debt too, but let’s not act like people who want to live and work in Iowa are graduating with six figures of debt because they have to kill a few months taking the bar and waiting for the results.

Sure, it’s bad for students who can’t even legitimately start looking for employment until they pass a bar exam. But let’s also remember that this is a natural consequence of obtaining a crappy degree that can’t get you “employed upon graduation.” That’s not just me talking. Bob Morse, U.S. News rankings guru, said at the recent AALS conference that the reason U.S. News still really cares about the “employed upon graduation” statistic is that it is a great indication about the strength and prestige of the law school. If people will hire your graduates before they even pass the bar, they’re saying that they really trust and value your educational preparation.

Of course, in the new normal, the problem is that there are too many kids for too few available jobs. People are waiting until after the bar results come out because there are too many graduates for too few entry-level jobs. That problem isn’t going to change if Iowa students graduate without having to take the bar. And I can certainly imagine some law school defenders telling Iowa students to just “hang out a shingle,” as if they are remotely prepared to do that, with or without bar passage.

The much better way of reducing costs for students is allowing them to sit for the bar exam after two years (or even one year of law school). Eliminating the bar but keeping the three years leading up to it is like cutting off a limb but leaving the gangrene.

But like I said, this isn’t really about the students, and more about what the schools feel they need to keep applications high. Not having to take the bar is something you can probably sell prospective students on, especially if those kids are choosing between an Iowan law school and some similarly ranked institutions in neighboring states. If you want to work in Iowa, it would be easier to stay in Iowa. And if you stay in Iowa but later want to work somewhere else, well you can just take that state’s bar exam like a normal person.

It’s the kind of thing that sounds more helpful than it is, but sounding helpful is exactly how you fleece the next generation of prospective law students.

Remember, Iowa Law already did something that will actually help students reduce their debt and give them more flexible employment options. It cut tuition. You tell me what makes more sense: eliminating the licensing exam, or reducing the cost of the education you are forced to sit through before you are allowed to take the licensing exam.

Register Exclusive: Group weighs ditching bar exam [Des Moines Register]

Earlier: THIS Is What It Looks Like When A Law School Actually Cuts Tuition

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