October 27, 2022

The Distributional Impact of Law-School Extracurriculars on Bar Exam Success

Academic and Bar Success


Seth Gershenson, Associate Professor of Public Policy at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and a Research Fellow at IZA – Institute of Labor Economics and Chris Birdsall, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Boise State University, received an AccessLex Bar Success Research Grant to analyze the role of extracurricular activities on bar success. Professors Gershenson and Birdsall utilized data from the American Bar Foundation’s After the J.D. study which surveyed a national sample of lawyers admitted to the bar in 2000 from nearly every law school in the U.S.

Gershenson and Birdsall’s research demonstrated that, generally, participation in extracurricular activities neither helps nor hinders bar exam success, with one exception: there is a substantial penalty associated with pro bono work in lower ranked law schools. Specifically, students in tier 3 and 4 law schools who perform pro bono work are 5 percentage points (6%) less likely to pass the bar exam on their first attempt than their classmates who do not. This pro bono penalty is largest for Black and female students and may explain as much as 20% of the Black-white gap and 6% of the gender gap in initial attempt bar pass rates.

The exact reasons for this penalty and why the penalty is most acutely felt by women and people of color remain unclear, but a likely reason is that the work done in pro bono positions is not directly relevant to bar exam preparation and, moreover, may displace time and energy from bar exam preparation. The greater penalty for certain groups may reflect that they engage in different types or intensities of pro bono work. Nonetheless, these results suggest that the cultural and institutional norm of pro bono work in many law schools might hinder diversity and inclusion efforts in the legal field. Law school administrators, mentors, and advisors should weight these concerns and acknowledge the potential tradeoffs of promoting pro bono work accordingly.

Gershenson and Birdsall’s full research findings on this topic are captured in their paper The Pro Bono Penalty: Extracurricular Activities and Demographic Disparities in Bar Exam Success.