Law school introduces new bar exam preparation program
South Texas College of Law Houston is dedicated to preparing graduates who are ready to practice law; this is a commitment the law school has maintained for more than 93 years. STCL Houston’s curriculum combines theory with experiential education so students graduate with the knowledge and skills required to succeed in law practice.
Of course, a major component of being practice-ready is having the ability to pass the bar exam—a task that law students across the country are finding increasingly difficult. According to the ABA Journal, the mean test score on the February 2016 administration of the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) fell significantly for the fourth consecutive time, to a 135—its lowest score since 1983. In Texas, the statewide pass rate has dropped in recent years from just under 90 percent to around 75 percent. Several theories about this downward trend have circulated through the legal education community—from lower nationwide admissions standards to questions regarding the test’s relevance to modern practice. Whatever the reason, law schools certainly are facing a new normal.
“There is a lot of speculation about this national trend of lower bar exam scores, and I suspect that multiple factors are at work,” said John Worley, associate dean for academic affairs. “Whatever the explanation, we have a moral obligation to be responsive to the data specific to our students and to make every effort to help our students be successful on the bar exam.”
Success on the bar exam always has been a priority when developing curriculum, academic policies, and support services at South Texas. In addition to building MBE and Texas-specific components into required coursework, the law school has for many years offered a bar preview course, academic support for at-risk students, and the popular Barapalooza bar preparation workshop. Students who are at risk are required to take a more heavily bar-oriented curriculum, and all students receive counseling about how to structure their law studies with a view toward bar exam readiness. However, the new normal requires a fresh look at these programs.
The law school’s Office of Assessment and Research collects and analyzes data—including undergraduate GPAs, LSAT scores, law school GPAs, and commercial bar prep statistics— to help the law school’s faculty and administration reach meaningful conclusions about what changes have the most significant potential for impact on bar exam success rates.
For South Texas, the most predictive factor for bar exam passage – more predictive than either undergraduate GPA or LSAT scores – is a student’s law school GPA. Data from bar exams administered between 2012 and 2014 shows that nearly 100 percent of students with a South Texas GPA of 3.1 or above passed the exam on the first try. For the same cohort, the average pass rate steadily declined as GPAs declined.
Although data from the July 2015 bar exam shows a downward trend across the board, a GPA above 3.1 was still a strong predictor of bar passage. However, the variance between the passage rate for these students and the passage rate for students in the 2.5 to 3.1 range increased significantly.
This information helped the law school’s Academic Success & Bar Performance Committee determine a threshold for identifying at-risk students and implement changes to current programs and services that will help these students.
Bar Preview Course
The law school has for many years sponsored a bar preview course, open to all students in their final semester and required for those with a GPA of 2.8 or less. The course will be mandatory for all students with a GPA of 3.2 or less. Starting in the 2017-2018 academic year, the bar preview course will become a for-credit, graded class, and students required to take the course must earn a passing grade to obtain the law school’s certification to take the bar exam.
“The new requirements are intended to ensure that students who are required to take the course will have skin in the game,” Worley said. “The course has long been required for students on academic supervision, but because the course was offered on a non-credit, pass/fail basis, students had few incentives to engage seriously and to take full advantage of its benefits.”
South Texas also has partnered with Themis Bar Review, a commercial bar preparation service, to enrich the lecture-based course which covers the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), three Texas-specific essay subjects, and seven MBE subjects. The bar preview course serves as a supplement, rather than a substitute, for a commercial bar review course. The partnership with Themis, which began this fall and is sponsored by a generous donor, will help the law school offer a more comprehensive course with more robust study materials and quicker feedback on student practice work (the service includes grading of practice exams and essays).
Academic Supervision and Support
The Academic Success Course is designed to help students build the necessary foundation for success in their legal studies by developing their legal analytical and problem-solving abilities as well as their study and test-taking skills. Open to all students and previously required for students with a 2.2 GPA or lower after the first semester of law school study, the course now will be mandatory for all 1L students with a GPA of 2.4 or less beginning fall 2017. The course has two objectives. Most obviously, it is aimed to assist students who are at academic risk to improve study and test-taking skills necessary for their success in law school. But since the students required to take the course are those who also are at risk of failing the bar exam, the course also will help students shore up skills required to succeed on the bar exam. Like the bar preview, the course will be for-credit, and students taking it will receive a pass/fail grade.
Mentoring and Coaching
In partnership with the Alumni Association, the law school recently launched its “ACE the Bar” Mentorship Program this month. The program is designed to provide Accountability, Commitment, and Encouragement (ACE) for students and alumni preparing for the bar exam. Alumni mentors are matched with exam takers to help them with preparation, time and stress management, and study tips.
Jocelyn Limmer, Assistant Dean of Academic and Professional Achievement, hopes weekly mentorship calls will help the law school stay connected to recent graduates who may otherwise not have reached out for help.
“In the two months between graduation and the bar exam, some graduates feel like they are on their own, and that just isn’t true,” Limmer said. “Whether they need help laying out their study plan or professional counseling for a personal issue that has come up, we are here to make sure they get the support required to meet their goals.”
In addition to these program changes, Worley has led the faculty in auditing every bar-related course in the curriculum to assure that the law school’s curricular content and teaching objectives and outcomes align with MBE outlines provided by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Faculty members also conducted a thorough review of more than 10 years of essay questions on the Texas-specific portion of exam, which identified a few subjects that will receive stronger emphasis in future instruction.
“We are committed to reevaluating and improving our curriculum and instruction continually in order to provide our students with the best possible legal education,” Worley said. “The bar exam, our student body, and the legal education landscape will keep evolving—and so will South Texas.”