Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Photo: Paul Schnaittacher/Wikimedia)

There’s a catch-22 that might explain falling bar exam passage rates across the country: Many law students now need to work to cover tuition, but their full-time jobs mean they spend too little time preparing for the big test.

Only 38 percent of candidates passed the last Connecticut bar exam in February—an 18-year low for the state.

Just three years earlier, 68 percent passed the February exam. But that number has plummeted with each subsequent sitting. In 2016, it fell to 63 percent. The following year, another dip, this time to 50 percent. Most recently, only 74 of 195 students passed the February exam.

But that dwindling success rate might point to students’ work ethic—not their lack of it, experts said.

“Preparing for the bar exam needs to be a full-time job,” said Western New England University School of Law’s Justin Dion. “You need to be spending eight hours a day on it preparing and studying.”

But that’s the problem: Most candidates can’t afford that luxury.

“You do have to eat,” said Joseph Olivenbaum, director of academic support programs at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. But “a student who is in a position where they have to work is [at] a disadvantage.”

With many February candidates at least in their mid-20s and not independently wealthy, they undertake huge debt to pay tuition. At Quinnipiac University School of Law, for instance, pursuing a law degree costs about $48,800. University of Connecticut School of Law’s in-state tuition is about $29,400, or about $59,900 for out-of-state students. At Western New England University, the tab runs around $41,000.

“There seems to be a larger cohort of Connecticut students working full-time while attending Western New England,” said Dion, who directs the Bar Success Program at the Springfield, Massachusetts-based university and serves as its professor of legal skills. “That has been the trend in recent years. There are a lot of people in Connecticut who work in insurance and they come to law school in the evening.”

That dynamic—working full-time and attending class after hours—was once the exception, but now it’s the rule.

“The financial pressures and obligations of students have increasingly grown over the years, forcing more to divert attention to things other than studying for the bar exam,” Dion said. “Any other job, full- or part-time, makes it exceptionally more difficult to pass, as you are forced to condense a full day’s worth of studying into a much smaller time frame.”

Universities are starting to acknowledge the issue and offer support, in addition to bar exam preparation courses that review substantive law and practice questions that test-takers might encounter on the exam.

Meanwhile, the bar exam itself is facing mounting criticism among detractors in Iowa, Wisconsin and other states, who view it as an unreasonable barrier to becoming a lawyer.

But Neal Feigenson, associate dean at Quinnipiac University School of Law, said a screening mechanism is essential.

“People who want to be doctors take tests, and to be in academia you take qualifying exams,” Feigenson said. “Like any test, the bar is not a perfect measurement, but it does screen, and that is its function. It’s not a perfect tool, but it does perform a rationale and necessary screening function.”

For candidates, the question now becomes how to pass that screening while working their way through school.