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California Bar to Inspect 3 Law Schools Over Low Exam Pass Rates

Dec. 7, 2020, 9:41 PM

Three California State Bar-accredited law schools where less than 40% of students passed the bar exam over a five-year average will be inspected as the state considers next steps for the schools’ futures.

The state bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners voted Dec. 4 to inspect within 60 days San Francisco Law School, part of Alliant International University, Lincoln Law School in San Jose, and John F. Kennedy University’s College of Law in Pleasant Hill.

California is one of the few states that accredits law schools, which also can seek American Bar Association accreditation. California requires schools achieve a five-year, 40% minimum cumulative pass rate for the state bar exam. In comparison, the American Bar Association requires 75% of a school’s graduates pass a bar exam within two years of graduation to maintain accreditation.

The three schools argued their pass rates would increase with California Supreme Court last summer dropping to 1390 from 1440 the score needed to pass the state bar exam.

Kyle McEntee, executive director of the nonprofit Law School Transparency, which advocates to protect legal education consumers, said it’s likely the score change would boost these schools’ pass rates.

“That said, 40% is an incredibly low bar” for a five-year average, McEntee said Monday. “Five years is incredibly generous based on the data.”

The Committee of Examiners also voted to inspect a fourth school, which is requesting provisional or full state bar accreditation, California School of Law, an online law school. The school may benefit from the way coronavirus has pushed many law schools almost entirely online.

“Up until now the ABA has said the online classroom environment isn’t sufficient or comparable to the residential classroom. And then the global pandemic hit, and now every school in America is doing what we’ve been doing for 15 years,” Dean William Hunt said Monday.

Noncompliance Inspections

For the trio of law schools at risk of losing accreditation, the committee’s inspections will determine compliance and next steps, which could be probation or terminating accreditation.

San Francisco Law School, the oldest evening law school in the western U.S., had a 36% pass rate last year, down from 46.2% in 2018. The school said its rate will rise to 50-55% by 2022 or 2023.

“For the last two years, we have worked closely with the State Bar of California to improve our outcomes. We have submitted a broad, comprehensive plan to help SFLS students succeed in their program and be better prepared to pass the bar exam and to practice as licensed attorneys,” the school said in an emailed statement.

JFK’s minimum cumulative passage rate fell to 39.7%, down from 48.8% in 2018, according to the bar.

“We expect our October bar results to put us back into compliance,” Lisa S. Hutton, JFK Law dean, said in an email. “Additionally, we are confident that the significant changes to our curriculum focused on weekly student assessments, a required year of extended bar review, and numerous enhancements to our academic support structure will better prepare students on exams in school and ultimately on the bar examination.”

Lincoln Law had a 30.9% cumulative pass rate this year, down from 55.4% in 2018. The school let students direct their own bar review studies. “I assumed that students would be eager to take advantage of the resources provided. They were not,” Dean Laura Palazzolo said in a letter to the board.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com
Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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