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School’s bar passage rate collapses after it eliminates admissions standards; Dean blames kids today

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The debate of the moment in legal academia is regarding why bar passage rates are falling.

While it’s true this question involves various statistical confounders, at bottom it’s not terribly complicated: as the average quality of law students declines, fewer graduates will pass the bar. Indeed, since there’s a three-year lag between declining admissions standards and declining bar passage rates, we are likely to see even sharper declines in the number of law graduates who end up licensed to practice law.

Last year I wrote an article for the Atlantic, explaining in some detail how Infilaw, a for-profit law school consortium owned by Sterling Partners, a private equity firm, was hoovering up ever-larger piles of federal educational loan money, by slashing the already-low admissions standards of the three ABA-approved schools Infilaw owns.

At that time I predicted that the bar passage rates at these schools were destined to collapse, despite the radical steps the schools were taking to keep this from happening. Such steps have included bribing students not to take the exam, and even calling them up the night beforehand to encourage them not to show up.

Infilaw’s administration took great offense at the suggestion that throwing their doors open to anyone with a college degree and an LSAT score (any score) would lead to poor outcomes for their loan conduits graduates on the bar. Since then two more summers’ worth of bar exam results have become available.

Charlotte Law School graduate first time bar passage rate, North Carolina bar exam:

2010: 83.3%

2011: 77.9%

2012: 65.4%

2013: 60.3%

2014: 55.4%

2015: 47%

Note that almost all of the 2015 first-time takers were 2012 matriculants. Charlotte’s 2012 entering class had a median LSAT score in the 30th percentile, while one quarter of the class had an LSAT score in the 19th percentile or lower. These are somewhat lower test scores than the graduates who took the 2014 and 2013 bar exam, and far lower test scores than the Charlotte graduates who took the 2011 and 2010 bar exams.

So who does the law school’s administration blame for generating this striking and eminently predictable correlation? If you guessed “the students they chose to admit even though they had test scores that predicted most of them would fail the bar” you would be correct.

Remarkably enough, the class that took the 2015 exam and recorded an abysmal 47% first-time taker passage rate had far better entrance numbers than the class Charlotte admitted last year, which is scheduled to take the bar in the summer of 2017. That class had a median LSAT score in the 18th percentile, while a quarter of the class had an LSAT score in the 9th percentile or lower. So we’re probably a long way from the bottom yet.

And if you’re wondering whether an ABA law school’s bar passage rate can fall far enough to get it de-accredited, the answer is “technically yes, but in reality probably not.” The reality in this case is that the ABA accreditation standards are absurdly lax. For example, they allow the passing percentage of a school’s own graduates to count toward a calculation of whether a school’s bar passage rate is no more than fifteen (!) points lower than the state bar’s overall pass rate. Thus a school like Charlotte, which has grown at an enormous pace, can pump out so many graduates that the school itself can seriously deflate the entire state’s bar passage rate (and indeed it has), thus making it much more likely that the school will somehow find a way to stay in compliance with the ABA standards.

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