NOTE: This is the second post in a series exploring some of the many questions that arose during an April 2018 Research Forum, noting gaps in collective knowledge about the bar exam and highlighting selected studies that have addressed certain questions. In no way do these posts attempt to examine all related issues or provide any sort of complete literature/research review. Rather, the intent is to spotlight pieces of a large and complex puzzle. (If bar exam issues were “simple,” they would have been resolved decades ago.)
One of the most vexing questions in legal education is: What factors predict bar exam success?
At every stage of the matriculation process, from admissions to graduation, law faculty and administrators engage in some level of speculation about how a particular student (or a class collectively) will fare on the bar exam. The bases of such speculation typically range from pure hunches to conclusions based on personal observations of performance in particular classes.
In today’s world, where law students invest small fortunes in their education and where bar passage rates are declining, it is increasingly critical for law schools to have evidence-based methods for identifying students who are most at risk of not passing the bar exam. These methods should allow for identification that leads to early, effective interventions. (One or more future posts will address the nature and efficacy of existing and potential interventions.)
One of the central themes that emerged during the Research Forum was the extent to which admission factors, namely, the LSAT and undergraduate GPA, predict bar exam performance. Researchers have looked at LSAT and UGPA to predict performance on the bar exam, or for predicting first-year grades; they have also considered other predictors in addition to LSAT and UGPA, such as work experience, other graduate degrees, and past criminal or disciplinary history.
Within the context of pre-admission factors, Forum attendees wondered about the extent to which pre-law school, conditional admission, and “alternative admissions” programs helped improve odds of bar passage among participants (already identified as at-risk).
Transitioning into the law school experience, Forum attendees wondered about the extent to which law school grades predicted bar exam performance. If grades are accurately predictive, is it possible to drill down into grade trends, such as improvement from 1L to 3L, grades in certain courses, or grades in mandatory as compared with elective courses. Do the number or length of “bar courses” have an impact? One study that has looked at using both LSAT and law school performance in predicting bar exam success came to interesting and compelling conclusions, but are additional studies needed and if so what in particular must continue to be examined?
The predictive value of law school grades, albeit relatively strong, still doesn’t explain 100% of the outcomes. Therefore, what are other predictive factors? Does student engagement matter? To what extent do factors such as socioeconomic status, debt load, employment status, age, first-generation status, physical or mental health, gender, race/ethnicity, motivation, and “grit” come into play? How do we measure and quantify these things in ways that are amenable to empirical inquiry? What do studies, such as this one, tell us about both LSAT and less quantifiable measures, including psychological variables?
We will pick up these themes and continue fleshing out many other questions and knowledge gaps identified by Forum participants in the weeks to come. In the meantime, what say you, Readers? Do you have additional questions about the themes noted above? What studies do you believe are critically necessary relating to the bar exam? You can post thoughts in the Comments section. If you would like to comment on posts offline, please do so by emailing Success@accesslex.org.