Breaking Through the Bar Exam With Prep Courses

Howard University School of Law had a problem, and school officials knew it. Over a 20-year period, 40 percent of its graduates who took the Maryland bar exam failed it on their first try. During the next 24 months — the time frame required to determine its “eventual pass rate” — almost 90 percent of the students did pass.

What they didn’t know was what was causing the embarrassing bar results, which threatened the law school’s accreditation status. A study commissioned by Dean Kurt Schmoke revealed that one-third of the students at the historically Black Washington, D.C. school declined to take bar exam prep courses. The post-graduation courses, offered by a variety of private companies, are widely viewed as vital to ensuring a positive result on the exam.

“Not taking the course? That’s like fighting a heavyweight battle with one hand tied behind your back,” says Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore who has been at the helm of the law school since 2003. “Their reason was money.”

The price of the courses vary by company and state, but they generally average between $2,000 and $3,000. Traditionally, graduating students take out a loan to cover the expense, which is separate from any law school loans, and thus not covered by financial aid.

In 2008, Howard became one of the first law schools to specifically address bar prep courses, instituting a nonrefundable “bar examination fee.” The $3,000 expense is evenly folded into tuition over the course of the three-year law program. That decision came the same year the American Bar Association ramped up accreditation standards — 75 percent of a school’s first-time bar exam takers must pass the test three years in a row, and 75 percent of all test-takers, including repeat test-takers, must pass over a five-year period

“Unfortunately, these [courses] are a necessary evil,” says Schmoke. “But we think they’re worth it. I want to make sure that our first-time pass rate is the same as our eventual pass rate.” To help them reach that goal, Howard recently joined the Alliance for Legal Education, which is lobbying to reverse a rule barring use of federal tuition grants to cover post-graduation exam prep courses.

Other campuses also are taking action to reverse high failure rates by graduates unprepared for the rigors of the exam, which many consider the toughest professional licensing test in America. Florida A&M University College of Law offers its new graduates a free, 10-week bar prep course. It is the culmination of bar exam prep opportunities that, starting in their first year of law school, are available through FAMU’s Academic Success and Bar Preparation program. That endeavor emphasizes, among other aims, the importance of earning a solid GPA as a first-year student. The ABA mandates a uniform first-year curriculum, meaning courses taught in year one are very likely to appear on the bar exams of every state.

The law school recently added two for credit elective courses aimed at improving passage rates. One course teaches the skills needed to pass bar exams in most states; the other course deals solely with Florida law. Both zero in on essay writing and analytical proficiency.

“We’re really trying to give them a head start,” says program director Jendayi Saada.

FAMU’s bar passage rates are slowly trending upwards. Fifty-five percent of its grads, who were first-time takers of the Florida bar exam in February 2010 passed, compared to 52 percent the year before. Sixty-two percent passed the July 2010 Florida bar, up 10 percentage points from the results of the 2009 exam.

“We had the largest increase in the state of Florida, but certainly we have a long way to go,” says Saada. “A big part of our push is educating students about the bar. Previous [law students] … were not hearing about the bar until their third year.”

That isn’t soon enough, says Courtney Lee, director of academic success at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, where a third of students are minorities. “We try to have a continuum of support, all the way from orientation to the actual exam,” she says. “If you wait until the bar to prepare, that’s too late.”

A team of Black, Hispanic, Asian and gay and/or transgender students is assigned to mentor underrepresented first-year students, and by the time students get to their third year they have the option of enrolling in “Practical and Persuasive Legal Writing,” a for-credit elective launched in 2006. The course teaches effective writing strategies by using questions from prior California bar exams.

“For the bar, analysis is based in facts. They have to perfect that,” Lee says. “Most of us are trained that … the sooner you reach the right answer, you get the gold star. That’s not true in law, but a lot of really smart people get caught up in that.”

At Howard, as Schmoke’s investigation and subsequent interviews with former students illustrated, the dismal bar passage numbers have more to do with financial impracticality than academic inability.

“I don’t think that White and Black people think differently. It’s a matter of exposure,” says Brittany McCants, president of the Student Bar Association at Howard. “It’s a class issue, not a race issue. Succeeding at some of this requires that you have money.”

McCants says some students initially balked at the $3,000 tuition increase. However, in the current unpredictable job climate for law grads, many soon realized it would be safer to pay for a course upfront rather than hoping an employer would cover tuition cost when the time came.

“It’s changed the way people view the bar,” says McCants. “You know you can’t make a last-minute decision.”