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The most recent edition of Bloomberg Businessweek asks a provocative question: Are lawyers getting dumber? The question comes from a recent spat between the head of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and several law school deans and officials. The NCBE, which administers the multiple-choice section of the state bar exams in every state save Louisiana, reported last year that scores on the exam had the largest single year drop in its four decade history. The lower scores led, predictably, to lower bar passage rates in nearly every state. Erica Moeser, the president of the NCBE, stated in a letter to law school deans that the drop had a fairly simple cause: “The group that sat in July 2014 was less able than the group that sat in July 2013.” In other words: law school graduates are dumber than in the past. Led by Nick Allard of Brooklyn Law School, the deans fired back. Allard wrote that Moeser’s explanation was “demonstrably false,” “corrosive,” and “offensive,” and, in a letter co-signed by 79 law school deans, asked for an investigation to determine the fairness of the 2014 exam.
If the one year drop in test scores is actually due to a drop in the ability of law school grads, why exactly would that be? Bloomberg points to a number of factors that have combined to possibly cause the problem. First, the number of law schools has proliferated in recent decades to keep up with what was, for many years, an increase in applicants. From 1987 to 2010 the number of accredited American law schools increased from 175 to 200. During much of that period, the applicant pool increased too, until the recession began in 2008. Since that time the applications have dropped off—fewer people are expected to apply to law school in 2015 that any time in the last 15 years—and many law schools have had to lower their standards to try to stem the tide of diminishing enrollment.
The bigger question is this: if the drop in quality of law school graduates is the beginning of a trend rather than a one-year blip, what does that mean to the profession? Bloomberg doesn’t dwell much on this subject but does quote Tom Henry, the vice chair of Willkie Farr & Gallagher’s Professional Personnel/Legal Recruiting Committee, who says that it won’t hurt BigLaw firms but may cut into smaller firms’ talent pool and constrict their ability to compete.
I believe that it’s probably true that BigLaw firms won’t be hurting for talent; the schools most worried about the drop in passage rates aren’t the T14 schools from which BigLaw pulls most of its lawyers, but the lower-ranked schools whose graduates would have struggled to find a BigLaw job in any economy. Although I feel bad for the graduates who are unable to pass the exam, I can’t help but feel that the lower passage rate may help the profession in the long run. Fewer graduates who pass the bar could allow the market for new lawyers to become less cut-throat than it has been in recent years and may lead to fewer qualified lawyers being forced from the profession by the inequality between supply and demand.
And the biggest way I see that the lower bar passage rates could the legal profession is if law schools—especially the newer and lower-ranked schools—actually looked in the mirror and asked if their lowered admissions standards could be in any way related to the lower passage rates. Perhaps that would stop the schools from admitting so many students who have little hope of becoming successful attorneys rather than pumping out unqualified graduates with six-figure debt into a saturated job market. Unfortunately, by the law school deans’ response, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.
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