ABA sign. Photo: Diego RadzinschiALM

The American Bar Association has tightened its bar-pass standard for law schools.

The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar voted Friday to implement a new standard, which goes into effect immediately, that requires at least 75% of a law school’s graduates to pass the bar within two years of leaving campus in order to retain accreditation. Schools previously had five years to meet the 75% threshold.

After more than an hour of debate, the 21-member council approved the change by a voice vote at its May meeting in Chicago.

“These revisions provide more straightforward and clear expectations for law schools, and establish measures and process that are more appropriate for today’s environment. Most students go to law school to become lawyers,” Barry Currier, managing director for the ABA law school accreditation process, said in a statement. “Becoming a lawyer requires passing the bar exam. How well a school’s graduates perform on the bar exam is a very important accreditation tool to assess the school’s program of legal education.”

The vote also means an end to the existing provision that allowed schools to meet the standard if their first-time bar-pass rate is within 15% of the average in their jurisdiction. It will also require schools to report bar-pass data on all graduates, as opposed to the current 70% minimum.

The debate over the bar-pass standard dates back to at least 2013, when the ABA began discussing changes. Supporters of the proposal argued that a stronger rule would ensure schools are admitting qualified students and preparing them for successful legal careers. Opponents countered that the proposed changes would disproportionately hurt law schools with large minority enrollment, thus hobbling efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession.

Kyle McEntee, the executive director of Law School Transparency, a group that pushed hard for the rule change, called it “welcome news for consumer protection.”

“Law schools that fail to prepare their students to enter the profession should be held accountable,” he added, also acknowledging that he hoped the change would push California to reduce its “unfair and unsupported” cut score.

The council was initially scheduled to decide on the proposal in February, but instead kicked the decision forward to the May meeting.

The ABA’s House of Delegates initially rejected the proposal in 2017, and again in January. But under the ABA rules, the council has the final say on accreditation matters and any changes to the standards after a maximum of two reviews by the ABA House of Delegates.