The Sturm und Drang of Bar Examination Passage Rates
by Craig Eley
[Disclosure: The author is a 1973 graduate of the University of Denver College of Law.]
The bar exam passage rate for graduates of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law has become a concern to Sturm administration and faculty, and they, as well as law alumni, are exploring ways of bringing up the passage rate.
When compared to the passage rate for University of Colorado Law School graduates, Sturm has almost always lagged behind. Records of the performance of the graduates of the two schools are available back to the 1988 bar examinations, and they show that Sturm’s passage rate has exceeded CU’s on only four exams during the past 20 years (all statistics appearing in this article are for first-time examinees only).
In recent bar exams, as the accompanying chart (derived from data obtained from the Colorado Supreme Court) demonstrates, the CU passing percentage often has been 20 or more percentage points higher than the Sturm pass rate. The most extreme example of this is the February 2007 bar examination results, which show CU with a passage rate 37 percentage points higher than that of Sturm.
When studying pass rates, it should be kept in mind that very few take the February exam compared to the July exam. For example, only 10 CU and 76 Sturm graduates took the February 2007 bar exam. When dealing with such small numbers, the performance of a single examinee who happens to be or becomes ill during the examination can significantly skew the percentages. In contrast, the July 2006 bar exam saw 127 examinees from CU and 251 from Sturm.
Additionally, Sturm examinees always greatly outnumber those from CU, sometimes by 100 percent or more.
The Sturm faculty and administration have tried to identify the reasons for the school’s bar passage rate. The following "areas of concern" identified by the law school appear on its website:
Professor Jay Brown is the chair of the Bar Passage Committee of Sturm College of Law. He noted that "if the bar passage rate falls too low, we are doing a disservice to our students." He related that, in the estimation of many, a rate that drops below 60 percent, or that is constantly below 70 percent is cause for concern. Of course, he added, the school hopes for a 100 percent pass rate, and "doesn’t want to accept anyone who cannot pass the bar."
One of the more accurate predictors of bar exam failure, according to Professor Brown, is a low law school grade point average. Low grades are the result of a student either not working hard enough or not mastering the analytical concepts of the study of law. To help such a student, it is now required that if a low grade is received by a first-year student in an examination, he or she must meet with the professor to review the exam. Also, under a newly instituted program, those students who are found at the end of their first year to lack analytical skills are enrolled in a second-year class that focuses on such skills. These classes are small, and apply analytical concepts to the substantive knowledge that was gained in the students’ first-year classes.
"The primary focus of the faculty," Professor Brown explained, "is to give the students the analytical skills necessary to make them successful lawyers. If that is accomplished, the bar passage rate will take care of itself." Nevertheless, among the other steps being taken at Sturm to improve the bar passage rate is the creation of a third-year course that is designed to prepare students to take the bar exam.
The DU Law Alumni Council has its own bar-pass committee, which so far has been in an information-gathering and investigative phase. Its members have met with many people who are knowledgeable in this area, trying to gain a wide perspective on what it sees as a complex problem. It has conferred with administrators and faculty members of both the law school and the university, including chairs of key committees such as admissions and curriculum. The alumni group also has met with outside experts, and has reviewed academic and scholarly publications to learn how other law schools have addressed the bar passage issue. According to Craig Joyce of Fairfield and Woods, a co-chair of the alumni committee, its work soon will switch to the report-writing and recommendations phase.
John Leopold, the recently retired Chief Judge of the 18th Judicial District, has taken an interest in raising Sturm’s bar pass rate and is co-chair with Joyce of the alumni bar-pass committee. According to Judge Leopold, alumni interest in Sturm graduates goes beyond improving the bar exam pass rate. "Law firms can no longer afford to train young associates as they used to," he commented. "Our efforts are not intended to just help law graduates pass the bar exam, but to be able to obtain employment during which they can deliver services of real value to their clients."
Part of this effort by alumni is facilitating the operation of a mentoring program, which is part of the first-year Lawyering Process class. This class, which includes the research and writing components of the first-year curriculum, is a required course. According to Sturm Professor Michael Massey, out of 16 sections of the class, four have attorney mentors assigned to the students. Mentoring involves five meetings with a student, most of which occur in the mentor’s office, plus attendance at a dinner at the end of the year. Professor Massey reports that students get a lot out of visiting their mentors’ offices, where they can observe the actual practice of law. The amount of time that the mentor must devote to the process is not large, it being estimated that a mentor would spend a total of four to six with hours with a student over the course of the first year (a mentor could elect to spend more than this amount of time if he or she wishes).
The mentoring process follows a loose structure that parallels the Lawyering Process coursework, so mentors are not left to devise their own mentoring plans. There are 160 mentors taking part in the program, and 60 more are needed as the number of sections using mentors is increased.
Professor Massey envisions an eventual mentoring program in which mentors choose to stay with their students for their entire law school careers. This would require about 1,000 mentors, and would give students an extraordinary boost not only in negotiating the challenges of law school and the bar exam, but also in the "real world" of lawyering.
Mentors may be attorneys or judges, and need not be DU law alumni. Those interested in volunteering or in learning more about the program may contact Professor Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 871-6025. Volunteers may directly register for the mentoring program by going to the Sturm College of Law website and clicking the "Alumni" button or by typing the following into their web browsers: http://www.law.du.edu/alumni/get_involved/mentorshipForm.cfm.