Eight of New York state’s 15 law schools reported higher pass rates for the July 2011 bar exam among first-time candidates, a turn-around from last year, when 12 schools reported a lower pass rate over the 2009 exam.

At the same time, the average pass rate for the schools remained static at 86 percent, according to the State Board of Law Examiners.

With an 82 percent pass rate, Syracuse University College of Law reported the largest percentage point increase.

Last year, Syracuse had a pass rate of just 70 percent, a 17 percentage point plunge from 2009. The 12 percentage point increase this year bumped Syracuse Law from dead last among the 15 schools in 2010 to the number 10 spot this year.

“Last year, it was stunning,” said Hannah R. Arterian, the dean of Syracuse Law. “In terms of the [academic] capacity of the grads, it just made no sense.”

But Ms. Arterian noted that Syracuse typically is among the schools with the lowest number of candidates taking the exam, which can create wide swings in the pass rate. This year, Syracuse had 130 first-time candidates compared with 118 last year. Statewide, the average number of first-time candidates per school was 257.

“We live in the world of small numbers,” Ms. Arterian said, “and if we get five or 10 students going one way or the other, it’s going to have an impact.”

Touro Law Center reported the second largest percentage point increase, with a 2011 pass rate of 83 percent, compared with 77 percent in 2010.

Dean Lawrence Raful attributed the higher rate to four factors: “getting the students’ attention” as to how a better pass rate improves a school’s reputation; adding courses focused on areas covered by the exam; a strong academic support program “to help students who struggle a little bit”; and a summer tutorial program in addition to the regular bar review.

He pointed especially to a semester-long course on New York civil procedure taken by most third-year students as good preparation for the exam.

“The course is increasingly taken by more students than in the past,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the City University of New York School of Law, one in three first-time candidates failed to pass the July exam, the lowest reported pass rate among the 15 schools.

CUNY’s 67 percent pass rate represented a six percentage point drop from 2010 and a marked departure from the school’s best showing over the past four years—83 percent in 2008.

“At a recent meeting, the faculty took positive steps to address this issue, including increasing the GPA that students must achieve to remain in good standing, restricting students’ opportunity to take courses for credit/no credit, and requiring students to take bar electives,” Dean Michelle J. Anderson said in an e-mail.

CUNY Law also had the lowest number of first-time candidates taking the exam this year, at 99. That means for each student who failed, the pass rate dropped a full percentage point.

A spokeswoman added that nine graduates “from prior years, as far back as more than a decade,” took the exam for the first time this July “and did not do as well as our 2011 graduates.” She noted that the 2011 graduates had a pass rate of 73 percent.

With an 80 percent pass rate this year, New York Law School experienced the second largest drop over last year, when the school reported an 84 percent pass rate. In 2008, New York Law had a pass rate of 94 percent.

“While we are looking at ways to improve our results, we understand that many different variables affect performance, such as the stress of the economic downturn and the lack of financial aid for bar preparation courses,” Dean Richard A. Matasar said in an e-mail. “We have a higher percentage of working students than many other schools, and they are unable to take time off to study.”

Mr. Matasar, who is leaving New York Law to become vice president for university enterprise initiatives at New York University on Jan. 1, added that a faculty committee has been analyzing the bar results and is developing “effective strategies” to increase the rate in the future.

Top Three Unchanged

In keeping with tradition, Columbia Law School and New York University School of Law had the highest pass rates this year, each at 96 percent. And, as usual, Cornell Law School followed not far behind, at 92 percent.

But with its 90 percent pass rate—an increase over its 2010 rate of 86 percent—the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law jumped to the number four slot, tied with Fordham University School of Law. Last year, Cardozo was ranked at number seven.

“In my mind, we’ve returned to the range that our past rates have been,” said Matthew Diller, who has served as Cardozo’s dean since 2009. “Last year was a slight dip for us, so I’m glad we’re back to where we’ve traditionally been, which is well above the average.”

All but four law schools reported fewer first-time candidates sitting for July’s exam, with the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University and Fordham Law experiencing double-digit drops, at 16 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Hofstra Law’s dip to 251 first-time candidates from 299 resulted in an 81 percent pass rate, up three percentage points from 2010.

Nora V. Demleitner, dean of Hofstra Law, said she was “delighted” by the pass rate upswing, “though there is always room for improvement.”

She added that over the past few years the school has “strengthened our students’ writing skills throughout the curriculum, increased individual academic and personal counseling and offered more courses and workshops that better prepare our students for subjects tested on the bar.”

Ms. Demleitner noted that the lower number of candidates taking the exam this year may reflect the fact that Hofstra Law has an increasing number of out-of-state and foreign students who may not plan to practice in New York.

The lower number of Fordham Law first-time candidates—373 from 421 last year—bumped its pass rate up one percentage point, from 89 percent last year.

Michael M. Martin, dean of Fordham Law, said he saw “nothing significant” in the decline in the number of first-time candidates.

“We always have fluctuations in our graduating class,” he said. “Over the past four years, about 86 percent of our graduating class takes the New York bar exam for the first time in July and about 90 percent pass. That’s been fairly consistent.”

In addition to Syracuse Law, the three law schools reporting an upswing in first-time candidates were Touro Law with 177 from 153, a 16 percent increase; followed by New York Law School, with 414 from 370, up 12 percent; and Brooklyn Law, 431 from 428, up 1 percent.

Statewide, 11,182 candidates took the July 2011 exam over a two-day period in Manhattan, White Plains, Albany and Buffalo. Last year, a record 11,557 candidates sat for the July exam.