Students taking a mock bar exam at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Photo: Rick Kopstein

Graduates of New York’s top two law schools performed even better on the July bar exam than their classmates did a year ago but passing rates decreased at 12 New York schools and five saw steep declines.

At one-third of the state’s 15 schools, the pass rates dropped by more than 8 percentage points. Three schools saw double-digit reductions.

With schools at the upper echelons improving and those on the lowest rungs struggling, the gap between the best- and worst-performing New York schools widened to just short of 50 percentage points. That’s nearly double what it was in 2016, the first year that New York State participated in the Multistate Bar Exam.

As always, there are caveats. The graduating classes of some schools were so small that the failure of a few students made a big difference. Some institutions say they have more high-performing pro bono scholars who take the exam in February rather than July. And law schools who admit lower-performing students have more work to do to prepare them for the exam.

But still, the trend was unmistakable. The graduates of the law schools with the highest rankings from U.S. News and World Report were way more likely to pass the bar exam than the graduates of lower-ranked schools.

Less than half of Touro Law Center graduates passed, prompting the dean to write a letter to alumni promising reforms. Touro’s pass rate was 16.2 percentage points lower than last year. At The City University of New York School of Law, the passing rate declined 13 percentage points. The Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University saw a loss of 11.6 percentage points, Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University dropped 8.4 percentage points and Syracuse University College of Law 8.2 percentage points.

New York’s plummeting scores mirror performance on the bar examination nationwide, which sunk to a 34-year low, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which released results on the Multistate Bar Examination in September.

“In light of this year’s downturn in performance on bar exams across the country, I echo the concern expressed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners about lower Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores, particularly in the bottom quartile of students,” said Syracuse University College of Law Dean Craig M. Boise. “Our focus on raising the median LSAT score for the bottom quartile of our 2018 entering class resulted in a 2 percentage point increase in that important metric over the previous class, which bodes well for our students’ future performance on the bar exam.”

While Albany Law School, Columbia Law School and New York University School of Law improved their performance between 2017 and 2018, Albany’s 75.9 percent pass rate was still 6.8 percentage points below the school’s score in 2016.

Graduates of Cornell Law School and Fordham University School of Law did not perform as well as their 2017 classmates but the declines were moderate. Cornell went down 1.6 percentage points and Fordham 4.4 percentage points.

“I am not too alarmed by our small drop relative to last year for a couple of reasons,” said Cornell Dean Eduardo M. Peñalver. “We tend to bounce around from year to year by a point or two, and our pass rate at 94 percent remains among the highest in the state. The difference between this year’s performance and last year’s 96 percent is just two additional students failing the New York bar.”

Dean Mike Simons of St. John’s University School of Law, which saw 86.7 percent of its graduates pass the exam, said the school has been expanding its bar preparation since 2016. Besides its bar prep course, the school has made an effort to keep the graduates at the law school studying together every weekday in June and July, the crucial bar preparation months.

From Monday to Thursday, the school, with the help of donations, provides dinner at 7 p.m., reducing the likelihood that hungry graduates knock off earlier. And to get the prospective lawyers back in on Friday, the school serves lunch. And there are bagels some mornings and Taco Tuesdays. St. John’s bar pass rate dipped 2.5 percentage points but the loss didn’t erase the 12.7 percentage point gain from 2016 to 2017.

Six schools performed above the statewide average of 83 percent for first-time test takers at American Bar Association-accredited law schools while nine schools were under the statewide average. The 83 percent was down three percentage points from the year before. The average was 81 percent for first-time test takers from New York law schools.

At 72.3 percent, Brooklyn Law School was down 6.3 percentage points.

“We recognize that we have a critical mission to prepare our students to pass the bar exam. While we are pleased for our students who passed, we are deeply concerned and disappointed that our pass rate was not higher,” said Maryellen Fullerton, Brooklyn’s interim dean. “Our entire law school community is committed to improving our bar exam results.”

Read More:

What NY Law School Deans are Saying About Declining Bar Pass Rates

More Touro Graduates Fail Bar Exam Than Pass, Prompting Dean to Call Results Unacceptable

NY State Bar Exam Pass Rates Plummet

List of Candidates Who Passed the July 2018 Bar Exam

Multistate Bar Exam Scores Sink to 34-Year Low, Pass Rates Sag