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The Margin: Why more aspiring lawyers are failing the bar exam in several states

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For the current crop of aspiring attorneys, it has seemingly become tougher to pass the grueling test required for entrance into the profession.

A number of states have seen the pass rates for first-time takers of the July bar exam, a multi-day test that requires demonstrating knowledge of various areas of law, drop this year versus last — sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly — according to data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The exam is administered in 56 U.S. jurisdictions, encompassing states and territories.

In New York, the pass rate fell from 78% to 75%. In Illinois, from 79% to 77%. But in Florida, the drop was more noteworthy — from 71.6% to 64%, which is the lowest rate over the past six years.

Legal-industry experts say there’s an obvious culprit for the declines — namely, the COVID-19 pandemic. People who took the test this past summer did so without the benefit of the traditional three-year in-person law-school experience, since classes were held virtually for periods during the pandemic. And that’s to say nothing of the stresses brought upon by the health crisis in general.

“Imagine attempting to acquire and memorize challenging concepts of law during that time,” said Joel Chanvisanuruk, director of programs for academic and bar success at AccessLex Institute, a non-profit organization focused on legal education.

Patrick M. Connors, a professor at Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y., says another factor is that the pandemic prompted many law schools to switch from having closed-book to open-book tests, but the bar exam itself remained closed-book in most states. As a result, some students weren’t prepared for the rigors of the bar, he notes.

“I think that was a big problem,” Connors said.

Still, Joanne E. Kane, associate director of assessment and research for the National Conference of Bar Examiners, cautions against reading too much into the results for some key states. She noted that other states have seen an uptick in pass rates among first-time takers. At the same time, Kane said, “It’s certainly possible that we’re also seeing the impact of COVID-19 — and the many disruptions it brought to everyone’s lives —- in this year’s pass rates.”

Jericho Cook, an aspiring attorney who took the exam in Florida this summer after finishing law school at the University of North Carolina, says he’s certain that COVID played a role in his failing the bar. He jokes about having attended the “Zoom School of Law” for much of the past three years and not really getting the benefit of a proper legal education.

“The meat of law school, we didn’t get to experience that much,” Cook said.

For first-time takers who fail the bar, there can be consequences, experts warn. While they can take the exam again — there’s one also administered in the winter — potential employers can hold it against you, Connors says.

“If you’re looking (for a job) and you haven’t passed, it’s a very tough hill to climb,” he said.

Of course, many law-school graduates have jobs lined up upon finishing school. But if they don’t ace the bar, Connors says, they can’t practice law in the official sense. And firms may not be willing to stick with them for long if they don’t pass soon enough, he adds.

Could the pass-rate declines ultimately result in a shortage of lawyers? David Lat, a lawyer and founder of the Above the Law website, says he’s doubtful of that. He notes that hiring is slowing down at many firms and the job market is tightening, so there’s not an immediate cause for concern.

“I don’t think we need to panic that the world doesn’t have enough lawyers,” Lat said.

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