Lowering Law School Standards; Lawyers Lacking Influence?

From The Practice November/December 2015
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

Lowering Law School Standards

Recent statistics are confirming what has become an all-too-familiar tale: enrollment in law school is down, the entry qualifications of students attending accredited law schools are falling, bar exam passage rates are declining, and law school graduates’ student debt is rising. Law schools facing the lowest enrollments in decades are responding to this quadruple threat through a variety of approaches. Among the most concerning responses is substantially increasing the admission rate of so-called at-risk students. At-risk students are those with scores lower than 150 on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Studies show that performance on the LSAT appears to be highly correlated with performance on state bar exams, which students are required to pass in order to practice law.

Many people in legal education believe that an LSAT score of 150 is the magic number dividing future success and failure on the bar exam. From this point of view, recent admissions statistics are especially alarming. In 2014, 74 of the 204 accredited law schools admitted classes consisting of at least 25 percent at-risk students, with 26 of those schools considered to be “extreme risk” (having an entering class with a 25th percentile LSAT between 120 and 144), according to a 2015 study by the nonprofit advocacy organization Law School Transparency. According to the study, average net tuition at “serious risk” law schools is only slightly less, and legal job rates are considerably worse than at schools that do not fall into this category. An LSAT score is, of course, only one indicator of a student’s ability to pass the bar, but it is generally considered a very significant one.

Many believe that an LSAT score of 150 is the magic number dividing future success and failure on the bar exam.

Recently released results from the July 2015 bar exam are unlikely to make anyone feel better. Oklahoma and New Mexico saw double-digit declines in their bar passage rates, with New Mexico’s passage rate falling an unnerving 12 percent (to 72 percent) and Oklahoma’s passage rate faring only slightly better, down 11 percent (to 68 percent). Other state bar exams suffered a similar fate, with Arizona unveiling an overall passage rate of 65.7 percent for first-time test takers.

The combination of lower entry qualifications and falling bar exam passage rates is particularly concerning in light of rising student debt, which last year sat at a cringe-worthy average of $118,670, plus interest. Retired chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Rebecca White Berch, who currently serves as chair of the American Bar Association’s national accrediting body for legal education, is calling for law schools to be more transparent, “telling students that your indicators say you may not have what it takes to pass the bar.” The solution to the problematic trends plaguing law schools and law students alike is unclear. What is clear is that something needs to be done before these trends get any worse.

Lawyers Lacking Influence?

The release of the fifth annual Bloomberg Markets Most Influential list, which ranks the 50 most influential people from a global pool of candidates, provides further fodder for those concerned about the state of the legal profession: not a single practicing lawyer made the list.

It may be less surprising than it seems that no practicing lawyers made the cut, given that the selection methodology makes it difficult for lawyers to stack up. Practicing lawyers most likely fit the bill for only two of the six categories: policy shapers and thinkers; they would likely not be included under corporate power builders, money managers, bankers, or tech builders. The selection process also favors recent accomplishments over lifetime achievements, which partly explains why half of the influential individuals chosen were newcomers to the list. The vetting process looks to rankings, profiles, and cover stories that have been published in Bloomberg Markets throughout the year, and the nine industry experts who were enlisted for help were heavily representative of business and finance. As one might expect, this year’s list reflected the recent successes of entrepreneurs, tech executives, and venture capitalists, as well as China’s increased influence on global markets, which contributed to the largest Asian cohort ever, bearing in mind that the list debuted only five years ago.

It is nevertheless curious that the list lacked a single practicing lawyer, particularly given that the absence of this category marks a change from previous years. For instance, Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, made the list for a number of years.

The absence of practicing lawyers from a business-oriented rankings list is hardly cause for alarm. But it does add a refrain to the familiar chorus about the health of the legal profession and whether lawyers continue to enjoy the degree of influence they once had, and whether top legal talent is increasingly being drawn to other fields. Although practicing lawyers did not make the cut this year, their classmates who ultimately opted for careers outside of legal practice fared quite well, with President Barack Obama, Goldman Sachs CEO and Chairman Lloyd Blankfein, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer all making the list.