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Surprise: Bar pass rate improves

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In an unexpected development, bar exam scores rose slightly for July 2016 test-takers. 

The national mean for would-be lawyers who took the Multistate Bar Examination was 140.3, up from 139.9 in July 2015, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The mean for the February exam, which is traditionally lower than the July exam, reached an all time low of 135.

While slim, the increase for the July exam is noteworthy. And it should come as a surprise to NCBE president Erica Moeser, who had previously said scores were on a downward trend because incoming LSAT scores have declined.

The score didn’t rise across the board, though, according to a memo that Moeser sent to law school deans. The mean MBE score increased in 22 jurisdictions, fell in 26 and did not change in two. Individual states will release their exact numbers this fall.

What does this all mean? 

“Students who began law school in fall 2013 had lower LSAT scores than those who began a year earlier,” Deborah J. Merritt wrote on the Law School Cafe website. “The former students, however, beat the latter on the MBE after graduation.”

Schools may have improved what they do to help students prepare for the bar exam, Merritt wrote. “Traditional legal education is woefully short on both feedback and one-on-one instruction, so there’s lots of room for improvement,” she wrote. “If some schools improved their pedagogies, that would have enhanced bar performance — despite lower LSAT scores in the entering class.”

However, before schools celebrate the changing trend, the scores remain near all-time lows, Pepperdine University School of Law professor Derek T. Muller wrote on Excess of Democracy.

“Given that bar exam scores hit a 27-year low last July, this is surely good news —particularly as the incoming predictors of law students across the nation continued to decline between the entering classes in 2012 and 2013,” he wrote. “But there is an important matter of perspective: a 140.3 is still near all-time lows. The July 2016 score is the second-lowest since 1988 (the lowest being July 2015).

“In an absolute sense, the score is not good. Indeed, while modest improvements in the bar passage rates in most jurisdictions will be good news for those passing students and for law schools looking for any positive signs, they will not approach the pass rates of three or four years ago.”