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The careers of many potential lawyers hoping to practice in Texas got off to a disappointing start in 2002, when almost 45 percent taking the February bar examination failed. The overall pass rate for everyone taking the test was 55.13 percent, compared to 60.53 percent a year ago. Graduates of Texas law schools taking the exam for the first time fared better with 70.48 percent scoring passing grades, while repeaters had a pass rate of 38.83 percent. A total of 1,072 applicants sat for the exam. Compared to the July exam, fewer people sit for the February test; many of those are repeat takers. The results, posted on May 3, show first-time pass rates for the state’s nine accredited law schools ranging from 35.48 percent for Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston to 97.83 percent for Baylor Law School in Waco. The percentages show ups and downs compared to the February 2001 exam. A year ago, the first-time rate then was 68.5 percent for Texas graduates and 48.94 percent for repeaters. Julia Vaughan, executive director of the Texas Board of Law Examiners in Austin, says it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions from February results because of the small number sitting for the exam and the high number — this year, it was 438 — of repeat takers. Last February, 1,054 people took the bar exam, 448 of whom had been through it at least once before. However, Vaughan says, “I would grant that February sometimes looks a little discouraging, but overall this February is consistent with last February.” The small numbers of students who take the bar exam in February can help or hurt a school because just a few more test-takers passing or failing alters the percentages significantly. The big surprise for legal educators was the drop in the pass rate of University of Texas School of Law graduates, which generally scores high, to 57.89 percent from 89.74 percent a year ago. Twenty-two of the 38 UT graduates sitting for the exam this year passed. “We’re disappointed that our rate went down,” Susana Aleman, the law school’s assistant dean of student affairs, says. “We’ll study the results to see why the passage rate was so low.” The biggest percentage increase came from the 12 graduates of Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas who took the exam for the first time in February. Eleven passed to give the school a 91.67 first-time pass rate, compared to a 58.33 percent rate a year ago when seven out of 12 passed. Dean John Attanasio says he’s delighted with the result but cautions that the numbers might be too small to be statistically significant. Law Dean Bill Piatt at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio agrees, but acknowledges he’s still disappointed that 17 out of 34 first-time test-takers from his school didn’t pass. “I don’t think it’s indicative of the overall success of our program, but it clearly shows we have room to improve,” he says. “We’ll never be satisfied with a 50 percent pass rate.” At Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock, interim Dean James R. Eissinger says the school’s proud that 33 out of 39 graduates were successful taking the bar exam for the first time, but adds, “I’d rather that the other six had passed, too.” Dean Bradley J.B. Toben of top-scoring Baylor attributes the good showing to close mentoring between faculty and students and a rigorous academic program. He also says the 400-member student body, the smallest number among Texas law schools and one of the smallest in the nation, allows for more individual attention. “We think the environment is very conducive to the learning experience,” Toben says. Pass rates for first-time takers at other law schools were 85.45 percent for the University of Houston Law Center, compared to 84.62 percent last year; 67.35 percent for South Texas College of Law in Houston, about the same as February 2001′s 67.78 percent; and 62.50 percent for Fort Worth’s Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, which had a rate of 75.61 percent a year ago. Dean Richard Gershon of Texas Wesleyan says he’s a little disappointed in the results but that his law school, the state’s newest, continues to improve. At Thurgood Marshall, law Dean John Brittain predicts that pass rates will start to improve soon. Beginning two years ago, with the class of 2003, the school stiffened its admissions standards and began admitting students with higher grade point averages and Law School Admissions Test scores, factors that generally lead to higher numbers passing the bar. Although dissatisfied with the 35 percent first-time pass rate, Brittain adds that his school should be judged not only by that figure but also by the fact that it provides educational opportunities to a diverse group of students. More than half of Thurgood Marshall law students eventually pass the bar exam, he says. “We have a very special mission to give students an opportunity who otherwise would not be admitted to earn a J.D.,” he says. The Board of Law Examiners gives hints on its Web site, www.ble.state.tx.us, of what might have affected the scores by listing typical shortcomings and suggestions for future test-takers. The suggestions include paying greater attention to the facts presented, including more than a mere conclusion when asked to explain the answer fully and organizing the responses. In the procedure and evidence portion of the test, the examiners say, many exam takers failed to include “yes” or “no” in their answer. Jeff Van Niel, an attorney and former member of the Ohio Board of Bar Examiners, says that many test-takers start answering an essay question by writing in a stream of consciousness and leave out a definite yes or no in case they change their minds halfway through. “A good test-taker will make out an outline of the issues and facts and then write down a cogent answer,” Van Niel, a consultant and husband of UH Law Center Dean Nancy Rapoport, says. Another problem, Van Niel says, is bad handwriting. If they can’t read it, the examiners can’t give credit for an answer. Related item: Feb. 2002 Texas Bar Exam Results

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