John Sammon, chair of the state Board of Bar Examiners (Photo: John Disney/ALM) John Sammon, executive director, Georgia Office of Bar Admissions (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

In a positive sign, the pass rate for Georgia’s February bar exam continued to improve for first-time test-takers.

Of the 257 first-timers who took the February exam, 70.4 percent passed—up two percentage points from the 68.3 percent who passed the prior February exam, according to data released by the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions on Monday.

That said, the overall bar pass rate declined to 47 percent from 51.1 percent for the February 2017 exam.

“The first-time takers overall did better, and repeaters did a little worse,” said John Sammon, the executive director of the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions. “The overall result was down, but I find it encouraging that first-time takers did better.”

The February results marked the second consecutive year of gains in the first-time pass rate for the winter Georgia bar exam. The 68.3 percent first-time pass rate for the February 2017 exam was up from 64.5 percent for the February 2016 exam.

Similarly, the pass rate increased for the July 2017 exam for the first time after five years of declines. For the July exam, 66.9 percent of total test-takers passed (up 1.1 percentage points from the previous July) and 76.3 percent of first-timers passed (up 4.1 percentage points).

The other big development for the February exam, Sammon said, was the improved performance for first-time test-takers from Georgia law schools. The pass rate for that group jumped 8.4 points, from 53.9 percent last February to 62.3 percent for this exam.

All the Georgia law schools have placed a lot of focus on preparing their students for the bar exam since the pass rate started to drop a few years ago, Sammon added. “That’s why, to me, it’s so encouraging to see the first-time takers do better.”

The gains were most pronounced for Georgia State University College of Law’s first-time exam-takers. Their bar pass rate shot up from 70.6 percent last year to 88 percent for this year’s February exam.

“I was very pleased with GSU Law’s first-timer results,” Sammon said.

Even so, the February bar pass rates are not as reliable an indicator as pass rates for the July exam, due to the much smaller sample size, Sammon cautioned.

A total of 77 first-timers from Georgia schools took the February exam, for example, compared with 601 first-timers for the July exam from those schools.

The surge in the pass rate for first-time takers at GSU Law gave it the highest pass rate among Georgia law schools.

Emory University School of Law saw similar gains, with a first-time pass rate of 75 percent, up from 55.6 percent for the previous February, but Emory had only eight first-time exam-takers, compared with 31 at GSU.

Pass rates were tied at 66.7 percent for first-time exam-takers at the University of Georgia and Mercer University. But UGA Law’s 66.7 percent first-time pass rate dropped from 71.4 percent for the prior February exam, while Mercer’s 66.7 percent pass rate jumped from 20 percent.

The sharp fluctuation is because the number of first-timers at these schools was quite small—all in the single-digits.

UGA and Mercer fielded only three first-time test-takers apiece for the February exam, and two of the three students passed. That compares with seven UGA and five Mercer first-timers taking the exam the prior year.

For John Marshall’s Atlanta and Savannah campuses combined, the first-time pass rate dropped from 38.2 percent last year to 34.4 percent for the February exam. There were 32 first-time test-takers.

However the separate pass rates for the two schools were sharply different. John Marshall’s 25 first-time takers achieved a 24 percent pass rate, compared with a 71.4 percent pass rate for Savannah Law School’s seven first-timers.

Overall, 608 people took the February exam, including first-time law school graduates, repeaters and lawyers from out of state, compared with 1,292 exam-takers last July.

This story has been updated to break out separate first-time pass rates for Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and Savannah Law School.