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At 4 p.m. Friday, hundreds of recent law grads logged on to the Georgia Supreme Court Web site with a mixture of dread and anticipation, eager to see if they passed the bar exam. John E. Ryan, dean of John Marshall Law School, will be right there with them, because the school’s bar pass rate could make or break its pending bid for accreditation by the American Bar Association. Ryan was named dean of John Marshall in 2001 and charged with getting the school accredited. His three-year rehabilitation of the school could lead to that accreditation next week if enough of his students pass the bar exam Friday. The Georgia Supreme Court has given the school until 2008 to gain ABA accreditation — its third extension since 1988. If it doesn’t, the school will lose its Georgia accreditation and be forced to close its doors. The current bid is the school’s fifth since 1997 — and its second under Ryan. Ryan is something of an expert in law school accreditation. Before joining John Marshall, he successfully led Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island to ABA accreditation. Ryan also spent 12 years on the ABA accreditation committee, including two stints as its chairman. But it’s been much tougher to get John Marshall accredited than Roger Williams, the dean said, because of the school’s long struggle to win respectability. Roger Williams was a brand new law school when Ryan became the dean, and under his guidance it received provisional accreditation in its second year. He made a similar bid for accreditation in his second year at John Marshall, in 2002, but the ABA turned it down — even though he’d undertaken a massive overhaul of the school’s faculty and curriculum, executed an $800,000 renovation and raised admission standards. PASS RATE TO BLAME The ABA said the school’s low bar pass rate was the sticking point. In 2002 John Marshall’s pass rate for first-time July test takers was 27 percent, compared to an 85 percent pass rate for all first-time test takers in Georgia. Although the bar pass rate was the official reason, the unofficial reason, the dean said, was that all the changes were “too much too fast.” The ABA wanted the school to prove that it was serious, he said. “There was unspoken uncertainty as to whether we were committed to this in the long run or were a flash in the pan.” Steadily improving bar pass rates emboldened the dean to try again for accreditation this year. By July 2003 the school’s pass rate jumped 21 percentage points to 43 percent of first-time test takers. For the February 2004 exam, only 33 percent of John Marshall’s 12 first-time exam takers passed — but, the dean pointed out, of the five new graduates who took the test, 60 percent passed. PLEASING THE ABA The ABA already has evaluated the school for its pending accreditation bid — and the report is very good, Ryan said. The ABA was pleased with the faculty, the curriculum and the facility, he said. To make its decision, it’s just waiting on the July bar results — which will be for the first class of John Marshall graduates produced under Ryan’s tenure. Ryan is well aware that the bar results, from the ABA’s perspective at least, are a test of the changes he’s made at the school. “The effectiveness of what we’ve done here since July of 2001 will be proved or disproved by the results of the students who took the July bar exam,” he said. Sixteen new John Marshall graduates took the July exam, plus five to eight first-timers from the pre-Ryan era — who could skew the pass rate “big time,” Ryan acknowledged. In making its accreditation decision, the ABA considers the pass rate for all first time test-takers, without distinguishing between the new and old regimes. Ryan disagrees with this approach. “I’ve been trying to persuade them that if they’re using the bar pass rate as a factor in judging the educational quality of the program, then they should consider the ones who went through the program — not the ones who went through the earlier program,” he said. Next Friday Ryan will travel to Chicago to learn the accreditation committee’s verdict. He would not make any predictions on the school’s chances. “Check the sky to the northwest. It may be white smoke — it may be black smoke,” he said.

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