Nine of New York state's 15 law schools saw a decrease in performance among first-time candidates for the July 2009 bar examination over last year, when 10 of the 15 campuses saw increases.
At the two campuses registering the greatest decreases -- New York Law School and Hofstra University School of Law -- the question being asked, among others, is whether a poor economy was a factor in reduced scores that followed upward trends at both campuses.
The overall decline in this year's bar pass rates involved dips of only a few points at most campuses, pushing the statewide average down to 88 percent from an all-time high of 90 percent in 2008.
The more substantial declines at New York Law and Hofstra Law, 10 points and 9 points, respectively, put their placements at the middle and bottom ranks of the schools.
Only two campuses saw improvements this year, Syracuse University College of Law, up 5 points to 87 percent over last year's 82 percent, and Pace Law School at 86 percent, up 1 point over last year's pass rate.
A record 11,532 candidates sat for the exam, which was held simultaneously in New York City, Buffalo and Albany on July 28 and 29.
The usual top three performers -- Columbia Law School, New York University School of Law and Cornell Law School -- remained in place, but in a different order from last year. This time, Columbia Law and NYU Law scored within fractions of each other at 97 percent, displacing Cornell Law from the No. 1 position. Cornell scored 94 percent this year, compared to 99 percent last year.
Hofstra Law sank from ninth place last year to the bottom of the list. A 10-point decline at New York Law caused the school to slip out of the high middle ranks, occupied once again by St. John's University School of Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Fordham University School of Law.
Members of the deans' staffs who analyze the data at New York Law and, to a lesser degree, at Hofstra Law, are exploring a theory: given the economy of 2009, working students had less time to prepare for the bar exam. Anecdotal information suggests that evening course students in particular had added responsibilities on the job, perhaps due to the layoffs of former colleagues, or a reluctance to request time off for fear of likewise becoming unemployed.
Nora V. Demleitner, dean of Hofstra Law, called the part-time student theory "interesting" and "intuitively attractive." But she made clear she does not necessarily subscribe to it.
Of the 38 evening students at Hofstra Law who took the bar exam for the first time, 10 were unsuccessful, for a failure rate of 26 percent. Demleitner said her school was phasing out its evening program, having cut off new admissions this fall.
"It's always been true that people who have to work are at a disadvantage," said Hannah R. Arterian, dean of Syracuse Law, which has no evening program.
Dean Richard A. Matasar of New York Law pointed out that the raw number of evening students who did not pass the bar is relatively small. At New York Law, according to an analyst for the school, six evening students failed.
A small raw number count was likewise a factor in Cornell Law's slip to third place. In 2008, the school's 99 percent pass rate would have been 100 percent if not for a single failing student.
Indicators among all New York Law exam takers -- grade point averages, for instance, and incoming LSAT scores -- showed that this year's class "had the same credentials as those in prior years," said Matasar. "So, yes, the results surprised us."
The school had experienced a solid upward trend in prior years. In 2005, the pass rate at New York Law was only 74 percent. One year later, the rate grew to 84 percent, then to 90 percent in 2007, followed by last year's jump to 94 percent.
"There are always these periodic spikes and dips," said Matasar. "It reminds us that everything is at the margins. We just have to do as good a job as we can in pointing out the risks of not being able to carve out full-bore preparation time for the bar exam."
New York Law students with top grades, generally those who do not work, he added, "continue to pass the bar at a rate of virtually 100 percent."
Hofstra Law also had been on a positive trend since 2005, when its pass rate was 71 percent. That number zoomed to 85 percent by 2007, then to 88 percent in 2008.
Hofstra Law's last-place performance this year is "obviously disappointing to us," said Demleitner, "although much more disappointing to the individuals" who failed the bar exam.
"We'll do our study, and we'll see," said Demleitner. "We don't really have any ready-made theories."
BOOST IN SKILLS TRAINING
Conventional wisdom, she added, connects subpar writing skills to bar exam failure. Hofstra Law and New York Law have connected their respective bar prep programs, with an emphasis on writing, to previous rising trends.
At Hofstra Law, for instance, there are now seven full-time professors who teach legal writing, a mandatory bar prep course for those students on academic probation, and a third-year optional course in critical thinking.
"We strongly encourage everyone to take the critical thinking course," said Demleitner.
The Comprehensive Curriculum Program at New York Law consists of remedial writing and legal reasoning courses, curtailment of elective courses for students performing at the bottom quarter of the class, a review of first-year work in the final year of school and what Matasar calls a "nowhere to hide" component -- a tuition-free extra semester of intensive study. The program is scheduled to be the subject of an article in the February 2010 edition of Journal of Legal Education.
Syracuse Law, too, has seen a substantial boost in its pass rates since 2005, then at 73 percent, growing steadily over time to this year's 87 percent.
In part, Arterian attributes progress at her school to a changed American Bar Association standard that allows ABA-chartered law campuses to offer for-credit courses in bar exam preparation. Syracuse Law, like some other of the state's schools, all of which hold ABA charters, now offers a two-credit bar prep class.
"We have totally revamped our program to make incoming students feel invested in the profession from the very first day," said Arterian. "They realize that the bar pass rate affects not only them, but our alumni."
She added, "A dean's job is to make a law degree an appreciating asset. Over the long haul, you want alumni to feel that they made a good choice in a law school."
Behind the year-to-year record of maintaining or bettering a bar pass rate, which Arterian notes is "published in the Law Journal along with every other school, where everybody can see the comparisons," is a matter of "blood, sweat and tears" on the part of students.
"So if anybody should crow about our success this year, it's our students," she said.
BAR EXAM STATISTICS
Other highlights of the July bar test, according to the New York State Board of Law Examiners:
• The overall pass rate for all candidates -- repeat exam-takers, graduates of foreign law schools and those who earned J.D. degrees outside New York state -- was 72 percent.
• Among graduates of ABA-chartered U.S. law schools, including all 15 campuses in New York state, the first-time pass rate was 88 percent. The pass rate for all ABA graduates, repeat exam-takers and New Yorkers included, was 83 percent.
• Foreign-educated candidates taking the exam for the first time, or repeating the exam, constituted 26 percent of the overall 11,532 exam-takers.