Austin lawyer Gary Bledsoe faced plenty of challenges when he became acting dean of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston last year. But now he is confronting one he hadn’t anticipated—created by the school’s dismal pass rate for graduates who took the July 2018 Texas Bar Examination.
Only 44.52 percent of Thurgood Marshall students who took that exam for the first time passed it—a rate that was by far the lowest among Texas’ 10 law schools and much lower than the pass rate that comparable groups of Thurgood Marshall students obtained in recent years.
When Bledsoe took the acting dean job on Nov. 1, 2017, the public law school at the historically black college had been censored by the American Bar Association for violations of multiple academic standards and an anti-discrimination accreditation standard. Bledsoe stepped into a school that had been rocked by personality clashes between leaders of the law school and the university.
In early October, Thurgood Marshall announced that the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar had approved recommendations made to ensure that the law school meet certain standards over the next two years—a development Bledsoe said is encouraging.
However, at the end of October, the Texas Board of Law Examiners announced the results for the July 2018 bar exam. A total of 77.87 percent of first-time examinees from Texas law schools passed the exam, a drop from the previous year. But only a little over 44 percent of Thurgood Marshal’s graduates passed. Meanwhile, at Baylor Law School, which posted the highest pass rate, 92.71 percent of first-time examinees passed the exam.
Bledsoe, a trial lawyer who is the longtime president of the Texas NAACP, said the law school has launched an investigation to figure out why the pass rate was so low. The school’s pass rate for the July exam in 2017 and in 2016 exceeded 60 percent.
“The numbers aren’t acceptable to me or to the leadership at the institution, and I’m sure they are unacceptable to all of the folks in the Thurgood Marshall School of Law family,” Bledsoe said.
It is too early to speculate why the pass rate was lower than normal, he said, but he is concerned that current students may transfer to other schools after seeing the low pass rate for the most recent bar exam. He said other schools do reach in and “poach” the school’s best students, despite Thurgood Marshall’s desire to keep them.
Ieshia Champs, a May 2018 graduate of Thurgood Marshall, gained some notoriety when a photo of the single parent and her five children celebrating her law school graduation went viral. She was one of the 44 percent who passed the bar exam and said the law school did “everything possible” to prepare students for the test.
However, Champs said many students deal with other demands on their time while they try to study for the exam. Some need to work and others have “unforeseen mishaps,” such as deaths in their family, evictions, the stress of paying bills and other family issues.
Champs said she does not fault the law school or the stressed-out students for the low pass rate.
Bledsoe is “very hopeful” that some of the ABA recommendations the law school has just put into practice will show results. To address the academic standards, the law school has improved its first-year program by adding new curriculum and faculty collaboration to revise and create new evaluations tools. The school is also taking steps to increase student engagement, according to a law school statement. The school is also asking students to limit activities and focus on legal studies, Bledsoe said.
The acting dean said an academic success team will provide students with timed essays and provide individualized feedback. The goal is a pass rate double the 2018 first-time results. ”We are going to make sure we turn this around,” he said.
Glenn Lewis, a lawyer in Fort Worth who is chairman of the TSU board of regents, said the pass rate is disappointing. He is hopeful that the ABA-approved recommendations will lead to a turnaround.
“We do have to improve. We continue to try to improve, but at the same time we are not going to abandon our mission, and part of our mission is to serve a population that other law schools don’t serve,” he said.
As of October 2017, about 90 percent of Thurgood Marshall Law School students were minorities, according to the school’s 2017 disclosure report to the ABA.
Lewis, a partner at Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, said the pass rate for graduates of the class of 2018 will improve when they retake the bar exam. An estimated 31 percent of students who were retaking the exam in July passed, he said.
The ABA declined to comment.