A proposal to tighten the American Bar Association's bar passage requirement for law schools hasn't gone over well with some advocates for diversity in the legal profession.
The committee updating the ABA's accreditation standards has received letters from numerous faculty and diversity organizations expressing concern since the plan appeared to enjoy widespread support among committee members in late April. The proposal would raise the minimum bar-pass rate from 75 to 80 percent, among other changes.
The National Bar Association — the largest association of black lawyers and judges — on June 20 passed a resolution opposing the proposal. The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) and the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) sent a joint letter to the committee warning the changes would have "dire consequences on law schools with racially diverse student populations."
Additionally, several diversity-focused groups within the ABA have written in opposition. Even a federal lawmaker has weighed in: U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee, wrote to the ABA last week asking that it consider how the proposed changes would affect minority law students.
"Any undertaking of a change to law school accreditation standards must include a thorough consideration of any potential impact the change may have on students of color," Conyers wrote. "Otherwise, such a change may only exacerbate the lack of diversity within the legal profession."
The proposal's opponents essentially argue that a tougher bar passage requirement would dissuade law schools for accepting students with lower undergraduate grades and Law School Admission Test scores — shutting out a larger percentage of minority students, who on average score lower on standardized tests.
Those concerns have not fallen on deaf ears, said Jeffrey Lewis, chairman of the ABA committee and a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.
"Our working group on this issue has talked a lot about the letters we've received," Lewis said. "But with a lot of the comments, they don't seem to know about the data that we have, so we're going to prepare a commentary to explain the proposal and address a lot of the comments."
In fact, the committee has data showing that "virtually no schools" would be unable to satisfy a higher, 80 percent bar passage requirement, he said. "If they can't meet that standard, then shame on them," Lewis said. "They aren't doing for the students what they should be doing."
The committee hopes to make its position paper available to the public before its July 12 meeting, when it is scheduled to discuss the bar passage proposal.
The idea is to make the existing standard more straightforward and encourage law schools to offer robust academic support to students likely to struggle with the bar exam.
Under the new rule, at least 80 percent of a law school's graduates would have to pass the bar exam within two years of graduation. The existing rule requires that a minimum of 75 percent of graduates pass within five years.
The argument over the effects of the bar-pass standard on student diversity is hardly new. The ABA set its specific bar-pass minimum only in 2008. Earlier, it enforced what was known as the 70/10 Rule — 70 percent of school's first-time test takers had to pass within the school's home state. Alternatively, the first-time bar-pass rate could be no more than 10 percent below the average for other ABA-accredited schools in that state. The U.S Department of Education demanded a clearer rule, however.
The ABA does allow an alternative to the 75 percent rule — schools can meet the standard with bar passage rates that are no more than 15 percent below other ABA-accredited school in their states. The idea here was to level the playing field across states, given the different passage rates across jurisdictions.
Opponents of the new proposal note that the existing standard has only been around for five years.
"Increasing the bar passage requirements of the current standard is unnecessary. The fact that most schools are able to satisfy the standard is not evidence that the requirement lacks rigor," reads the letter by CLEA and SALT. "Law schools are taking seriously their obligation to enable students to pass the bar and will continue to do so. If the goal of a bar passage standard is to help ensure law schools have academic programs adequate to serve their student bodies, the current standard has accomplished that objective."
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