For the first time in five years, the pass rate for the Georgia bar exam has gone up.
According to newly released statistics from the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions, 66.9 percent of test-takers overall passed the state’s July bar exam. That’s up 1.1 percentage points from the 65.8 percent of test-takers who passed the July 2016 exam.
The pass rate for first-time test-takers, typically a higher figure, showed even greater improvement. It jumped almost four percentage points, up from 72.4 percent last year to 76.3 percent for this year’s July test-takers.
“I’m very encouraged,” said John Sammon, the executive director of the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions, adding that the 1.1 percent overall increase in the pass rate was “not the story” in terms of the potential future trend.
“The story is the difference in the pass rate for first-time test-takers,” he said. “That is an indicator that applicants and law schools are moving things in the right direction.”
Graduates of Georgia’s five law schools, who made up 738 (57.1 percent) of the 1292 examinees, performed at a higher rate than test-takers overall—with an average pass rate for first-time test-takers of 79.4 percent. That was up 4.1 percentage points from the July 2016 rate of 75.3 percent.
Sammon noted that the number of repeat exam-takers for the July 2016 exam—283 out of 1292—was “the highest number in recent memory,” which he said dragged the average down.
“That’s why I see such great encouragement in the improved performance of first-time takers,” Sammon said. “It means law schools nationally and in Georgia are better-preparing the applicants.”
Sammon noted that the 51.1 percent pass rate for the February 2017 exam was the lowest in several years—and that, relatedly, 56.7 percent of the examinees were repeaters (364 out of 642).
“My hope is this improvement is sustainable. We spend a lot of time in the Georgia law schools, and from what I see, I have no reason to believe it’s not,” Sammon said.
Declines in bar exam pass rates have been a national issue for the past few years. The pass rate for the Georgia bar exam in 2012, before the declines started, was 79.7 percent overall and 85.3 percent for first-time test-takers.
Georgia Law Schools
This year Georgia’s two public law schools, the University of Georgia School of Law and Georgia State University College of Law, registered the highest pass rates for first-time test-takers.
UGA Law was the front-runner for the fourth year in a row, with an 89.3 percent pass rate for first-time exam-takers—up from 87.5 percent for the July 2016 exam.
“We’re really proud of our students who worked so hard and took their preparations seriously,” said UGA Law dean Bo Rutledge.
Rutledge said he and the other faculty “impressed on them the importance of thinking about [bar prep] as training for a marathon,” both during law school and in the run-up to the July exam. He added that the law school encouraged students to find a training partner and then check in with law school staff on their progress. “It’s a simple nudge … but they took it seriously,” he said.
GSU Law surged into the No. 2 spot with an 84.5 percent past rate for first-timers, up from 82.6 percent for the previous year.
That knocked Emory University School of Law into the No. 3 spot, with an 82.5 percent first-time pass rate, down from 84.6 percent last year.
Mercer University College of Law, with a first-time pass rate of 82.4 percent, was in a virtual tie with Emory Law—and the comeback story of the group. Its first-time pass rate increased a whopping 14.7 percentage points from last year’s 67.7 percent pass rate.
Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School also showed great improvement, with its pass rate increasing 8.3 percentage points to 51.7 percent. The pass rate at its coastal outpost, Savannah Law School, on the other hand, dropped 9.8 percentage points to 54.5 percent.
“Nothing gets your attention like a year of less-than-stellar results,” said Cathy Cox, who became the dean of Mercer Law on July 1. “The 2016 results were enough to get the full attention of our faculty, staff and students. I have to give great to former dean Daisy Floyd and all the faculty and staff here for the tremendous efforts they made to implement academic and bar prep initiatives to help our students succeed.”
Mercer Law’s 2016 first time pass rate in July 2016 of 67.7 percent was itself an unprecedented drop from the previous year’s 75.3 percent.
Cox noted that the July 2016 crop of 133 first-time test-takers was unusually large, up from 97 the previous year. That number decreased to 102 for the July 2017 exam.
“We had an exceptionally large class in 2016, and some maybe were not a good fit,” Cox said. “We’ve been scaling back on class size since then to keep standards up.”
She added that 3L students last year were motivated by the July 2016 drop to take “more bar-tested courses that are not required.”
For this year’s July exam, Mercer Law’s average Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) score increased 2.8 points to 140.2 points. The 200-point multiple-choice section accounts for half the total exam score. Six essay questions graded by the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners and their staff make up the other half.
(The average MBE score for the Georgia law schools was 139.8 points.)
Cox said Mercer faculty have become “more attuned to the MBE” and are figuring out ways to use multiple-choice questions in some classes to “acclimate students to this kind of test-taking.”
The law school has also implemented an optional bar prep course for credit in the third year—which is mandatory for students who are more at risk, Cox said.
“While a 15-point increase is tremendous, we are not resting on our laurels,” Cox said. “I was talking to the chair of our bar prep committee this morning about additional steps we might want to take.”
At UGA Law, the first-time pass rate increased almost two percentage points, but the school’s average MBE score remained the same, at 146.9 points.
Rutledge said UGA Law is placing more emphasis on teaching writing skills—and has increased the number of required writing credits for the graduating class of 2018.
He said the school has received “very clear guidance” from alumni leaders, managing partners of law firms and other external stakeholders that they need good legal writers. “With the increased importance of graduates who can hit the ground running, as cases are staffed more leanly, it is no longer a skill that can be taught on the client dime,” he said.