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On Nov. 7, Justin K. Ferguson, a first-year associate with the Dallas office of Baker Botts, is focused on his recent assignment for the firm’s corporate practice group. He’s happy. His name was included among those released Nov. 5 by the Texas Board of Law Examiners (BLE) as passing the July bar exam. His concentration is distracted when the phone rings and a staffer at the Texas Supreme Court asks Ferguson if he has time to take a call from Texas Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright. In those few seconds before the justice came on the line, the old doubts returned. “I was sitting on the phone, trying to decide why he was calling,” Ferguson says. “Did they mess up on the posting, or was there a problem with my bar application?” What the justice had to say was even more shocking than Ferguson’s anxiety-provoked imaginations. Ferguson had earned the highest score on the July Texas bar exam. The BLE presents the exam results and its recommendations for admittance to the bar to the high court, and Wainwright, carrying on a court tradition, was calling to notify and congratulate Ferguson. “I was thrilled,” says Ferguson, a May 2003 graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law. “And shocked. I think anyone who took the Texas bar had some doubt of passing. I never felt 100 percent confident that I passed. I just studied as hard as I could. I prepared like I did in law school and left the rest up to the examiners.” As the top scorer, Ferguson was scheduled to make a few comments during this Monday’s swearing-in ceremony for all new bar admittees at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin. Ferguson declines to reveal his score. “I don’t know how you address all these other new lawyers out there,” he says. “I just don’t know what to say. I’m shocked that this happened and just glad that we all passed.” Those who passed number 2,049 or 76.74 percent overall of the 2,670 first-time and repeat exam-takers who took the July 2003 bar exam, the BLE reports. The overall pass rate for the 2002 exam was 73.5 percent. First-time test-takers outperformed last year’s average with 82.74 percent — 1,879 of the 2,271 who sat for the exam — passing compared to 79.30 percent in July 2002. Repeat test-takers slightly underperformed compared to last year’s average with 42.61 percent passing, or 170 of 399 test-takers, versus 42.79 percent. The pass rates for first-time test-takers from Texas’ nine American Bar Association-accredited law schools ranged from a high of 95.33 percent for Baylor University School of Law in Waco to a low of 50.43 percent for Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. Baylor Dean Bradley J.B. Toben points to a number of factors he says contribute to the school’s consistent performance on the bar exam. “We have a program that is designed to be rigorous, not only in the first year, but also in the second and third years,” Toben says. “In fact, many students think, correctly, that the intensity of the program steadily heightens, which makes us very distinctive among law school programs. We have a program that is highly structured, from the first through the third year, because we believe our students deserve to have that type of structure to prepare them for practice.” Thurgood Marshall interim Dean McKen V. Carrington says pass rates are moving in the right direction — upward — for the school’s graduates. Although below the Texas law school statewide average of 84.36 percent, the school’s 50.43 percent pass rate for first-time test-takers is the highest it has been in three years, Carrington says. “We’ve made some progress.” But Carrington notes that the pass rate is still “not something you write home about.” He expects graduates will continue to improve and notes that changes the school made this fall — such as expanding fundamental courses in contracts, property and torts to two semesters — will support such improvement. “We are increasingly having a stronger student body,” Carrington says. Pass rates for first-time test-takers at the other two Houston law schools were 89.20 percent at the University of Houston Law Center and 77.91 percent at South Texas College of Law. At the UH Law Center, Dean Nancy Rapoport says graduates are consistent performers on bar exams. “We expect most people who take the bar to pass on the first try,” she says. When the BLE released its results, Rapoport says she was content to see her students with a pass rate surpassing the statewide average of 84.36 percent. “We looked at the mean, said, ‘Good,’ and went back to work,” she says. At South Texas, Dean James J. Alfini says he’s concerned with the July pass rate of 77.91 percent for South Texas first-time takers. Alfini took over as dean at South Texas in August. “Historically, South Texas has been at or above the statewide rate, so anytime we fall under the statewide rate we become very concerned,” Alfini says. “Last summer and this summer we did just that.” He says a committee made up of staff, faculty, alumni and university board members is working up a list of recommendations for improving the school’s bar exam pass rate. “This is a very good teaching faculty,” Alfini says. “They take their jobs very seriously. I know that working from that base, we should be able to analyze the problem and work on it.” ST. MARY’S JUMPS Perhaps the most dramatic statistic among the July results is the 74.37 percent first-time test-taker pass rate at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio — an increase from 61.8 percent in July 2002. “I think that we’re going to be able to do consistently better now than we have in the recent past,” says Bill Piatt, St. Mary’s law dean since 1998. “I’m very optimistic that we might be able to finally see the results of improvement in the academic environment that we’ve been working on here.” Piatt says changes implemented incrementally since 1998 include tightening admission requirements; requiring students to take more courses geared specifically to preparing for portions of the bar exam; lowering the median grade in courses (resulting in more failing grades) thereby creating an annual attrition rate of 15 percent to 19 percent; and enhancing the school’s recruiting efforts. “I think right now we are focused on academics and focused on getting people admitted to practice law.” Pass rates for first-time takers at other Texas law schools were 93.08 percent at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin; 92.39 percent at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas; 89.83 percent at Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock; and 78.43 percent at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth. First-time pass rates at UT Law have consistently been in the low to mid-90s, says Steve Goode, associate dean for academic affairs. UT Law’s July 2002 pass rate was 92.43, so this year marked an improvement. “We’re quite pleased,” Goode says. “Our consistent results, year after year, means we have a good student body and we are preparing them well.” SMU law Dean John Attanasio says he is relieved to learn that, once again, the school’s pass rate improved over the previous year’s, which was 90.24 percent. “The bar exam cannot be the most important thing that drives the educational process,” says Attanasio, law dean at SMU since 1998. “But the bar exam is one area of important accountability.” He attributes the graduates’ performance to faculty members working on improving bar pass rates by implementing changes such as expanding core courses from one to two semesters. At Texas Tech, Dean Walter Huffman is celebrating the July bar results for two reasons. First, Texas Tech law graduates earned an 89.82 percent pass rate, which Huffman says is close to the school’s 10-year average of 90 percent. And, second, the school can claim bragging rights to the graduate with the top score. “We are very pleased with the results this year,” Huffman says. “And even more pleased that we just learned one of our students, Justin Ferguson, had the top grade on the bar exam.” Meanwhile, law school staff are analyzing the course history of those students who did not pass the exam to determine if there are any trends among courses taken or not taken that correlate with success on the bar exam. “We believe we bring young people into the law school who are all capable of graduating and passing the bar,” Huffman says. At Texas Wesleyan, Dean Frederick G. Slabach, head of the law school since June, says the school’s graduates turned in another solid performance, albeit a slight decrease from the 81.91 pass rate in July 2002. “We scored above the statewide [average] in the last four out of five exams, and we routinely score higher than three or four schools in Texas,” he says. “We plan to continue to put emphasis on legal research and writing. We think that’s one of the ways our curriculum design will help students prepare for the bar.” Slabach, who became the law school’s dean in June, adds, “I’m very excited about being at TWU now. We’re definitely on a roll.”

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