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Bar Passage Rates and Top Law Schools:
John Donahue's blog post on the Yale Effect paper has a lot of interesting claims, some of which seem sound and some of which I'm less sure of, but I was struck in particular by this claim:
My colleague Roberta Romano notes that Barondes speculates that Yale law clerks may know less legal doctrine because of the school's famous emphasis on theory. But Romano points out that bar review passage rates would at least give a sense of whether Yale Law students are deficient in acquiring knowledge of legal doctrine. To test this I thought one might look at July 2007 bar passage rates by school for the single largest state. As it turns out, across all non-California law schools with at least 15 applicants, Yale had the highest bar passage rate (94.1 percent). California bar exam takers from the University of Chicago and Harvard did quite well, but their passage rates of 86 and 87 percent were clearly lower than that of Yale students. Yale law graduates are looking better all the time!
  Interesting point, although I doubt bar passage rates for Yale, Harvard, and Stanford have much to do with what law students actually learn at Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. In my experience, passing the bar is mostly a matter of how seriously students take their BarBri lectures [UPDATE: Or whatever lectures or books students use] to learn the fantasy world of law that exists only on the bar exam. For better or worse, the overlap between what students learn in school and what is on the bar exam is relatively narrow. As a result, bar exam passage rates don't shed much light on how much law students learn in school.

  UPDATE: I should take this opportunity to link to the world's greatest BarBri parody video. Hilarious.
Ai:
Bar passage rates also strongly correlate with LSAT scores.
4.22.2008 10:09pm
pADDy:
Rather, it is mostly a matter of how seriously students take their BarBri lectures to learn the fantasy world of law that exists only on the bar exam.

Is this similar to the fantasy world of law that exists only in law school?
4.22.2008 10:20pm
OrinKerr:
Is this similar to the fantasy world of law that exists only in law school?

Depends on your professor, I guess.
4.22.2008 10:22pm
ERH:
You know I'm about as far away from Yale law school wise as you can get, but I think more schools would benefit from adopting their focus on theory.
4.22.2008 10:30pm
kormal (mail) (www):
Doesn't the bar passage rate still support a valid argument against the "Judges with Yale clerks are more likely to be reversed" thesis? If they're able to learn and synthesize Barbri's materials in order to excel on the bar exam, this would seem to be solid evidence of their ability to disregard (or de-emphasize, or whatever verb you want to insert here) their Yale teachings in favor of learning rote doctrine, wouldn't it?

In other words, just as they are able to set aside the supposed Yale approach of theory-unmoored-from-the-law for purposes of passing Barbri, they similarly can suppress it for purposes of explaining the law and advising a district or circuit judge.

I might be missing some nuances of either side of the argument, but I think the bar passage rate is a signal of Yale graduates' ability to analyze, explain and apply the law, skills they similarly should be able to put to use in a clerkship.
4.22.2008 10:32pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
@kormal:
Or, they are more willing to live in a fantasy world, whether of legal theory unmoored from practice, or of the bar exam, an argument in favor of the "Yale clerks cause reversal" thesis.

I have no idea which is the case.
4.22.2008 10:41pm
kormal (mail) (www):

Or, they are more willing to live in a fantasy world, whether of legal theory unmoored from practice, or of the bar exam, an argument in favor of the "Yale clerks cause reversal" thesis.


True enough.
4.22.2008 10:46pm
John R. Mayne (mail):
Prior opinion of Professor Kerr: Very high.

Reduction in opinion due to plugging evil BarBri: Much (but doubtless temporary).

Day one of law school at mine (Bob's Waffles and Law; no Law parking during breakfast hours) the BarBri hounds were on me to sign up right now! Now! Before prices go up! Now! Now! Now! Or you'll die! And never pass the bar! Aiiieeee!

It seemed that everyone was in on it; the school's dean tsked me for not taking BarBri or whatever else was out there, decrying my certain failure on the California bar. I kept getting pressured by new BarBri reps as the old ones flunked out or quit.

I passed the bar on the first try. I used flash cards (which were great, and used to not be owned by BarBri) and gin and tonics. Bombay gin and tonics help studying a great deal.

BarBri is evil. Don't believe the hype.

--JRM, only now clicking on the video
4.22.2008 10:59pm
TerrencePhilip:
Having taken the California bar I can assure you that one must know a great deal of traditional meat-and-potatoes legal doctrine in order to pass; postfeminist legal theory seminar notes will not help you.

So while bar passage rates don't necessarily reflect what one learned in law school (indeed I recall hearing what was probably an urban legend about a study involving college grads who took the bar and "passed" at about the same rate as law school grads with similar grades), they DO reflect on one's ability to learn and apply straightforward legal doctrines. If the bar pass rates reliably reflect a superior ability in Yale grads in this respect, then that in turn suggests that judges with Yale clerks are not getting reversed because the clerks bungle traditional legal matters.
4.22.2008 11:12pm
OrinKerr:
John Mayne,

No plug of BarBri intended; I was one of the few grads my year who actually had to pay for the bar course, as I wasn't going to a firm, and I thought it was way overpriced for what you got. But it did seem like everyone was taking it.
4.22.2008 11:26pm
BarBri Hater:
John R. Mayne,

Congratulations on your bar taking skills. I also took and passed the California Bar on the first try without BarBri or any other course. All the students flocking to the course is really a herd mentality, which I am naturally adverse to.
4.22.2008 11:36pm
OrinKerr:
BTW, I amended the post to take out any BarBriBias.
4.22.2008 11:39pm
John Lott (mail) (www):
There is an old economics problem that Armen Alchian used to give at UCLA. He argued that the farther away a student travels to go to school the better that they would on average be expected to do because of the higher costs that they are bearing to go to school. The same is true for jobs. I am not sure if this relative ranking of Stanford and Yale would hold if they were comparing bar passage rates in say Connecticut. Unless there is a strong reason to only examine one state and looking at it for just one year (2007), it is very hard to take this one observation seriously. Might it hold for other years? Who knows, but was it that hard to get together the data for five years or from 2000 to 2007. There is also no discussion of whether the samples are so small that there is no statistical significance.

As to Donohue's claims about the death penalty, I have a discussion here.
4.22.2008 11:41pm
neurodoc:
OK: As a result, bar exam passage rates don't shed much light on how much law students learn in school.
The bar exam passage rate says little or nothing about "how much law students learn in school" whether the rate is impressively high or strikingly low? It doesn't reflect on the quality of the legal education at a certain DC law school that as a group its graduates do terribly on the DC bar? Or LSAT scores explain the high failure rate?
4.23.2008 1:05am
neurodoc:
I didn't take BarBri or any other prep course, but I did have a friend's Conviser. That was of inestimable help.
4.23.2008 1:07am
Tony Tutins (mail):
I'd put it this way: If you're really smart, you'll figure out how to write what the California Bar considers to be a passing essay. You must raise as many issues as the facts suggest. List a rule for each issue. Say "The element of X was met/not met because..." On each essay, there will be very few issues that are truly arguable. Then make a simple conclusion and move on.
4.23.2008 1:46am
Brian G (mail) (www):

In my experience, passing the bar is mostly a matter of how seriously students take their BarBri lectures


I didn't pay one dime for BarBri, PMBR, or anything else. I bought the state books used and the Multistate books used, studied 8 hours day for 5 weeks, and played Texas Hold 'em (the name of the card game is banned here) every single night except for the nights before the exams.

The people I know who failed used those courses as a crutch, and thought that because they attended they knew what they needed to know.

It is 5-6 weeks of bearing down for something that will serve you until the day you die. You have already invested 2-3 years in it, Why not just get down to business and get it done. I could not believe the complacency of some people, and my buddy and I picked out quite a few of our classmates for failure, and were right on the money.
4.23.2008 2:49am
Cornellian (mail):
Took BarBri, took it seriously, passed the California Bar on the first try. Definitely wouldn't want to have to repeat that experience.
4.23.2008 6:01am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I am frankly not surprised that YLS grads did well on the bar exam. MBE scores seem to track LSATs, and essays seem to track the sort of stuff taught in LS. And overall bar success seems to have an effort component. So, all factors would seem to swing in Yale's favor.

Of those who failed their first time, I would throw most into one of these categories:
- fairly low LSAT scores
- susceptible to panic
- unwilling to work hard enough.

The first category maybe shouldn't have been in LS in the first place. The second often seem to be able to overcome their panic the second time around. But the third category bother me. They have spent 3 years getting through LS, and can't find the six weeks or so necessary to get through the bar prep. Worked with a guy like that until last week, who had passed the patent bar, but had failed the state bar twice. Instead of dedicating six weeks of hard work, he kept failing and blaming everything around him for his failure, except for his own lack of effort.

It does seem to get progressively worse trying to pass a state bar, as you put more time between you and LS. I am facing right now a strong suggestion that I take a third state bar almost twenty years after graduation from LS. Last one a decade ago was bad enough. One problem being that you get rusty on the silly essay question format. Real live clients just don't want to see all the low level possibilities that you have rejected out of hand that are so valuable for essay questions, whether in LS or on the bar exam. Another problem is that you have to sandwich the bar prep in your actual law practice, family life, etc.
4.23.2008 7:29am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Some 25 years ago I did a bartending job for Harvard Student Agencies alongside a HLS student for some wealthy and ostentatious family who shared a name with two prep schools. The son of the owner of the home was then attending Suffolk Law, which was then even smaller and less national than now. He chatted with my senior bartender and made some remark "Oh Harvard... I believe they have a somewhat lower pass rate on the Mass bar exam than Suffolk". After the son left, the bartender explained to me that this was true, because while he was learning law, this young man was taking a 3-year-long bar exam prep course.

Just a factoid. I'm not suggesting that YLS is a CalBar prep course, merely noting that there are various factors at play. And that I've been a law fan-boy for a long time.
4.23.2008 8:47am
neurodoc:
Of those who failed their first time, I would throw most into one of these categories:
- fairly low LSAT scores
- susceptible to panic
- unwilling to work hard enough.
Did one of those explain John Kennedy's difficulties passing the NY bar?
4.23.2008 8:59am
treebeard (mail):
Orin: "In my experience, passing the bar is mostly a matter of how seriously students take their BarBri lectures [UPDATE: Or whatever lectures or books students use] to learn the fantasy world of law that exists only on the bar exam. For better or worse, the overlap between what students learn in school and what is on the bar exam is relatively narrow. "

I second that. I had to take the Bar twice. I missed it by single digits the first time. The only difference was that the first time I was scattered in my studying, and didn't follow Bar Bri's schedule or instructions exclusively, and the second time I hyperfocused on doing exactly what Bar Bri said to do.

I would even add that the first time I studied for the bar, I actually referred to my law school class notes. That was a foolish mistake, because there are too many contradictions (sometimes subtle)between the law learned in class and the law used on the bar. It's better just to learn "the law of Bar Bri," including their definitions. And instead of creating your own work to do, just do their assignments religiously. It's not fun, but it works. (No, I'm not paid by Bar Bri. This was just my own experience.)
4.23.2008 9:55am
Rich B. (mail):
I believe that we can all agree that, for those of us who took BarBri, whether or not it helped us pass the Bar (and for me it certainly did), by the time we started our jobs two weeks or two months later, all we remembered was:

Contracts: The names of lots of Kinky Friedman songs.

Real Property: That stuff from that YouTube video.

Criminal Law: Burglary can only happen at night.

Torts: It is "slander per se" to accuse someone of having a "loathsome disease."

Evidence: The "dying declaration" exception to the hearsay rule

Constitutional Law: The Bar Exam manages to squeeze all of the interesting parts out of Con. Law. You don't remember anything.
4.23.2008 10:46am
John P. Lawyer (mail):
orin,
I have to disagree partially with your comment that the bar exam does not test what one learns (or was exposed to) in law school. I went to Penn (which doesn't "teach to the bar exam") and thought that there was significant overlap between the material on the bar exam and information presented in my first year classes - property, con law, crim law, torts and contracts. I also thought classes in evidence and constitutional crim. proced. helped with the multi-state portion. It's not that one could not learn this stuff from the BarBri books (or whatever prep material one chooses), but in my case it made preparing for the bar exam easier because I had already been exposed to the material before. Maybe I am an outlier here?
4.23.2008 11:01am
J. Khan:

For better or worse, the overlap between what students learn in school and what is on the bar exam is relatively narrow. As a result, bar exam passage rates don't shed much light on how much law students learn in school.


I think this is true to some extent, but what does an exceptionally high individual score mean? Does it simply mean you are good at 'fantasy law?'
4.23.2008 11:09am
dll111:

BarBri Hater:
John R. Mayne,

Congratulations on your bar taking skills. I also took and passed the California Bar on the first try without BarBri or any other course. All the students flocking to the course is really a herd mentality, which I am naturally adverse to.


California doesn't require graduation from law school to become a lawyer. Why'd you flock to law school for 3 years with the rest of those students when you could have simply studied for the bar on your own? That's just part of your herd mentality, man . . .
4.23.2008 11:16am
JosephSlater (mail):
I got nothing on the merits, but that was a very funny video. Thanks for posting the link.
4.23.2008 11:35am
John R. Mayne (mail):
dll111:

It's true that you don't have to graduate from law school, but you can't just take the bar after studying for it - you have to do a four-year apprenticeship with a lawyer or judge, and pass the Baby Bar, and keep records of training to qualify for taking the bar without law school.

I have little doubt that a bright graduating high school senior could pass the bar with one summer of prep. If I could have just taken the bar, I would have (though I enjoyed law school.)

On a non-threadjack note, I do believe bar passage rates are relevant to the evaluation of a school.

--JRM
4.23.2008 11:40am
AK (mail):
I've passed the bar exam twice, and I never took a prep course. I passed using materials I bought onm eBay. The first time, I took a week off after graduation, then started listening to the PMBR tapes in my car and on my iPod, and did the "easy" problems in the BarBai book. After two weeks I was done with the tapes (I skipped criminal and most of con law to save time because I knew both pretty well), and I moved on to the harder problems. About two weeks before the exam I started looking at old essay questions and answers, concentrating on stuff that I knew was going to be on there, and mostly ignoring unlikely topics like commercial paper. That strategy worked well, because scored high enough on the MBE that as long as I didn't do the essays in crayon I would pass. The next summer I repeated the process and passed again. YRMV, but I found that grinding out 40-50 MBE problems every day and really researching each one that I didn't get right - even on Wikipedia - was the best prep. The PMBR tapes were a good overview and really got a few concepts stuck in my mind (wild animals, the invitee/licensee distinction) but nothing replaces actually doing the problems.
4.23.2008 12:13pm
AK (mail):
Ultimately, the bar exam isn't any different from any multiple choice test: give a smart person two months, a couple thousand practice questions, web access, and an incentive to pass and he'll pass it.
4.23.2008 12:25pm
Prosecutorial Indiscretion:
Why California? I submit that Prof. Donohue chose that state to mislead and not to enlighten! While California may be the largest state, New York is the more relevant for discussions of YLS bar passage rate. The plurality of YLS grads take the New York bar, as do the plurality of HLS grads. But as Yale does not come off the better in a head-to-head comparison of New York passage rate, despite Yale's more than respectable percentage, Professor Donohue opted to resort to California in a naked attempt to bolster Yale's reputation at the expense of other elite law schools whose graduates are less likely to be involved in producing reversed opinions. Infamy!
4.23.2008 1:18pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

Why California?

California analyzes the passage rate for each bar exam umpteen different ways. For example, while Asian-Americans fail the bar the first time more often than whites, they have the best percentage as repeaters.
4.23.2008 1:46pm
John Lott (mail) (www):
Again, I am not sure what to make of one single year of data from one state with no explanation for why such extremely limited data is used. We don't even know anything more than at least 15 people were involved in this sample. This incredibly small sampling is very strange. In addition, no explanation is offered for why other explanations are not accounted for, such as what I raised earlier.
4.23.2008 5:19pm
Kathi Smith (mail):
BarBri rocks! My alma mater, Georgetown, being a "national law school" offered nothing in the way of preparation for the Calif bar. BarBri teaches you the trade in 5 easy weeks.
UCBerkeley/Boalt Hall's pass rate last summer was 82% and they're in state.
4.23.2008 6:27pm
Vain Clerk:
Orin -- thanks for linking to a classic U.Va. Law libel show clip. I saw that video in the theatre there when I was a 1L. Fantastic. (Ahh, nostalgia) And it accurately previews Bar/Bri lectures for students, too.

Quick note: the people I know who failed the bar exam typically underworked until the last two weeks, and tried to cram. That's not how most people's memory systems work. Bar/Bri is a massive, flawed institution, but if you follow its rough schedule, and read the materials, and don't freak out, you'll pass.
4.24.2008 6:17pm