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Like many attorney wannabes, Michael Cox woke up on May 2 wondering whether he’d passed the February 2003 Texas bar exam. He feared he’d have to endure one more weekend of not knowing before the Board of Law Examiners posted the results. He didn’t have to wait. That morning the BLE released the exam results, and Cox says he found out he had passed and could finally unwind. Cox, a third-year student at the University of Texas School of Law, graduated on May 17. On June 9, he’ll join Baker Botts in Dallas as a patent associate. “Once I knew I passed, I spent the weekend relaxing and having fun,” says Cox, 30, who has a wife and three children. Overall, 656 first-time and repeat exam takers who tackled the February 2003 bar exam have reason to celebrate. Those passing tallied 60.02 percent of the 1,093 test takers, the BLE reports. The pass rate for the 2002 February exam was 55.13 percent. First-time test takers bested last year’s average with 73.37 percent — 416 of the 567 who sat for the exam — passing compared to 68.30 percent in February 2002. Repeat test takers also bested last year’s average with 45.63 percent — 240 of 526 who sat for the exam — passing compared to 36.07 percent a year ago. The pass rates for Texas’ nine American Bar Association-accredited law schools ranged from a high of 100 percent for Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas to a low of 37.5 percent for Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. Texas law school deans and BLE officials caution that February data are not as reliable as July exam results for measuring a school’s success in preparing its students for the exam. “The vast majority of first efforts tend to be in the summer,” says BLE executive director Julia Vaughan. For example, in 2002, there were 393 Texas law school first-time test takers, while in July 2002 there were 1,595. The smaller numbers can skew results for better or worse, Vaughan says. Nonetheless, SMU law Dean John Attanasio has bragging rights since all five test takers from his school passed the exam. “We’ve made a substantial improvement in bar passage rates both in overall percentages and where we sat relative to other schools in the state,” Attanasio says. The school rated a 91.67 percent passing rate in February 2002. “We were No. 2 last February, but four or five years ago we were last,” he says. Attanasio, who became dean in 1998, attributes the improvement to increased faculty advising and academic support for the school’s lower performing students, such as an increased focus on legal writing and research. But he also says that SMU, which will begin offering evening classes this fall, is not primarily focused on bar exam pass rates but rather “training leaders and lawyers who are very sophisticated in a wide variety of fields.” While a 100 percent pass rate is unusual, so is the 72.22 percent pass rate for Texas Tech University School of Law. The school traditionally surpasses the statewide average; the statewide passing average this time around for Texas law schools was 77.23 percent. A year ago, Texas Tech’s pass rate was 84.62 percent, and its pass rates have comfortably ranked the law school at No. 3 on average among Texas schools since 1991, says Dean Walter Huffman. Huffman says a handful of alumni called him about Texas Tech’s February 2003 pass rate, which ranked the school seventh among Texas’ nine law schools. “I told them I’m glad that you are upset, that’s the kind of law school we want to be,” says Huffman, who graduated from Texas Tech Law in 1977. While researching the results, Huffman says he noted two strong students did not pass the February 2003 exam. After talking with them, the dean says they had not prepared for the exam but rather took it on the chance they might be lucky and pass. If the students had prepared and passed, then Tech would have had a pass rate of 78 percent, higher than the state average, because it would have meant 28 of the 36 Texas Tech test takers would have passed, he says. “They’ve realized that taking a flyer on the bar is not a good thing,” says Huffman, who took over as dean in August 2002. “If they had asked me, I would have said the odds [on passing] are long.” Bill Piatt, dean of St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, says he discourages students from sitting for the February exam because most of them haven’t finished their full six semesters of law school. Of the 32 St. Mary’s February test-takers, 18 passed for a rate of 56.25 percent, compared with 50 percent last year. At one time, faculty encouraged students to take the February bar as a practice exam, the dean says. That’s a bad idea, says Piatt, “because if you fail it, the odds are not good for passing in the future, due to the psychological impact of failing, which makes the school’s overall pass rate drop.” The February results are decidedly more volatile than the pass rates for the July exam, says Associate Dean Jeffrey Rensberger of South Texas College of Law in Houston, where 74.07 of first-time takers passed compared to 67.35 in February 2002. “You look at each bar result in itself as a snapshot,” says Rensberger. It’s best to consider both July and the combined results over time, he says. “You look at the longer-term trends and see where you are,” he says. For the past several years, South Texas’ pass rates have typically been at or above the state average, he says. “We feel good about the educational service we are providing to our students,” he says. HOPES FOR THE FUTURE Pass rates for first-time takers at other law schools were 94.59 percent at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, compared to 57.89 percent last year; 89.36 percent for the University of Houston Law Center, compared to 85.45 a year ago; and 85.42 percent for Baylor Law School in Waco, which scored 97.83 percent in February 2002. As suspected, last February’s unexpectedly low 57.89 percent pass rate was an anomaly, says UT law Dean Bill Powers. The school’s goal is to maintain bar pass rates in the mid- to high-90s, he says. Regarding February’s 94.59 percent pass rate, he says, “We had a good result and we are very happy with that.” At the UH Law Center, Dean Nancy Rapoport says her students always do well on bar exams. “It tells us we’re doing a good job preparing our students, but it’s not the only thing we look at,” she says. The school emphasizes a mix of theory and practice to prepare students for their careers, she says. Bradley J.B. Toben, Baylor’s law dean, says he is disappointed with the school’s lower-than-usual pass rate. “We look at those who failed and try to discern why,” he says. “My hope is that even though this time, we’re at 85 percent and a bit lower than in the past, we’re looking for a big success on the next bar exam.” At Thurgood Marshall School of Law, 37.5 percent, or six of the 16 first-time test takers, passed. Interim Dean McKen V. Carrington says the school is taking action to quickly improve its pass rates. In February 2002, 35.48 of its test takers passed. In the 1990s, the school moved away from requiring bar exam-focused courses, Carrington says. “And we have since come to the belief that that has not worked for us and we’re going back to a more focused curriculum,” he says. “This year the faculty adopted a lot of wholesale curriculum changes, which will get bar passage rates up to where they need to be.” Some of those changes, which will go into effect this fall, include two semesters (rather than one semester) of courses in fundamentals such as contracts, property and torts. Other changes include providing academic support, such as tutoring, for students in the lower 25 percent of their class. For the upcoming July bar exam, the school also will offer scholarships to cover the cost of a bar preparatory course to about 20 students, Carrington says. Carrington also says the school instituted stricter admission criteria three years ago, which, when combined with the revised curriculum and emphasis on bar exam preparation, should improve bar pass rates to the 70-plus percent range within the next two years. “We’re admitting students now that we believe will have better success when taking the bar after spending three years here,” he says. Unlike most of the other Texas schools, February results are useful to Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth because it offers evening classes and a good portion of the students sit for the February exam, says Dean Richard Gershon. About 180 law students graduate from the school annually and it had 45 test takers for the February 2003 bar exam. Its pass rate was 77.78 percent, compared to 62.5 percent a year ago. The school opened its doors in 1989 with its first graduating class in 1992. Says Gershon, who will step down as dean at the end of May, “We are real proud of how well our students have progressed and how well they are doing.”

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