University of Montana law professors are worried after a "devastating" drop in the number of graduates who pass the Montana bar exam.
For the second consecutive year, the percentage of law graduates who passed the exam hit a historic low. Sixty-eight percent of UM graduates passed the July exam, slightly better than the overall pass rate of 62 percent.
At UM, law Dean Paul Kirgis is concerned.
“There is an enormous personal cost imposed on these students here who have been trained as an attorney and now are going to be barred from the profession, at least until the next time they are able to take the bar exam,” Kirgis said.
Law school administrators also are concerned about how the failure rate will affect law graduates, and their interest in even practicing law. Kirgis, who was appointed dean in July, said not passing the bar is “devastating to students.”
In 2014, the Montana bar exam pass rate dropped to 64 percent, following 10 years in which it ranged from 70 percent to 90 percent. Never before had it fallen to 64 percent.
Then came the July 2015 bar exam, and the pass rates announced last week. The would-be attorneys fared 2 points worse this year, with just 62 percent passing the exam.
The decline in exam scores is being reported regionally and nationally as well. In Idaho, 68.3 percent of law graduates passed the bar exam in July, while 69 percent of test-takers in North Dakota passed the exam.
For those who fail, the wait to retake the exam is considerable. Students are only allowed to take the exam twice a year, once in July and once in February.
Kirgis, who taught law at St. John’s University School of Law before becoming the dean of UM’s law school, is quick to point out that UM graduates fared slightly better than the overall 62 percent pass rate, which includes students or professionals from other schools and states who are sitting for the Montana exam.
But 68 percent is still low, and lower than the 69 percent of UM law graduates who passed in 2014 and the 92 percent who passed in 2006 and 2008.
So why the rapid, and steep, decline?
Kirgis said he doesn’t think the sudden drop has anything to do with the quality of instruction or the quality or motivation of students taking Montana's bar exam.
Instead, he points to changes in the exam itself. As of 2014, Montana law graduates are required to pass a new test called the Uniform Bar Exam. Created by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and recommended by the State Bar of Montana, the Montana Supreme Court adopted the exam in 2012. At the same time, they increased the score needed to pass by 10 points.
The new exam is different because it has more multiple-choice questions and doesn’t have any material specific to Montana law, Kirgis said.
“This is an extremely controversial subject nationally,” he said. “The law schools are very unhappy about these results. The National Conference of Bar Examiners have rejected calls to reveal their testing methodology. They have said publicly they have double-checked their exam, and this is all because the students aren’t as good. To us, it looks like our students are comparable to students in the past.”
The exam is designed to allow graduates from one state to be able to practice law in another state without having to sit for multiple bar exams, Kirgis explained.
State bar exam administrator Marie Connolly declined multiple requests for comment from the Missoulian.
However, National Conference of Bar Examiners president Erica Moeser did respond to questions.
She said the Uniform Bar Exam scoring and the exam itself have been tested and her group is “confident of the correctness of the scores reported.”
“We are simply the messenger, and the message is people are not doing as well,” she said.
“When the test is criticized, it’s more in the mode of shoot the messenger,” she added.
Moeser said the reason for the decline of law graduates passing the bar exam is due to a decline in law school enrollment nationwide and the acceptance of college graduates who have lower LSAT scores.
According to data compiled by NCBE, the lower 25 percent of LSAT scores of Montana law school students enrolled between 2010 and 2014 is down 2 points, from 153 to 151, respectively.
In Idaho, LSAT scores in the same quadrant are are down 4 points, while in North Dakota they are down 5 points.
Moeser also pointed to the Montana Supreme Court's decision to increase the score needed to pass as a possible reason for the low pass rates in the state.
“In short, there should be few surprises for those who watch the interplay of law school enrollments, law school predictors, and (the test) results,” she wrote in her column in the NCBE publication, The Bar Examiner, last month. “This is the ‘new normal,’ and the new normal will be with us for a while.”