Newly-minted attorney JenniferHitchcock knew the stakes when she sat down to take the bar exam.
As a member of the last class to graduate from Indiana Tech Law School, she had already learned that failure could shut down an entire legal education program, and she realized her own future depended on that two-day test.
Hitchcock passed as did nine of her classmates along with three others from the previous class.
However, successes like Hitchcock’s are declining. Indiana, as with many other states across the country, has been charting a drop in bar exam results and is struggling to determine the cause as well as find a way to reverse the trend.
Since 2013, the overall passage rate for the Indiana bar exam given each July has fallen from 76 percent to 64 percent in July 2016 and 2017. The February exam has plummeted from 69 percent overall in 2013 to 52 percent in 2017.
At a press conference reviewing the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2016-2017 annual report, Chief Justice Loretta Rush said she was worried and concerned about the slumping bar scores. She echoed the apprehension of many about the quality of students being admitted to law schools and she noted the format of the exam itself may be impacting the results.
Yet both she and Justice Mark Massa pointed out the Supreme Court has a constitutional responsibility to maintaining high standards of practice.
“Our court’s primary focus in all this is consumer protection,” Massa said. “We have to regulate the admission to the bar. We do so with an eye on consumers and making sure the lawyers who serve them are competent.”
Ronald Katz, co-founding partner of Katz Korin Cunningham, thinks the decline is linked to the format of the bar exam rather than the quality of the students. A longtime lecturer for the Indianapolis Bar Association’s bar review course, Katz was a member of the Indiana Bar Examination Assessment Task Force that studied and recommended changes to the state test.
The bar exam, he said, could be a good measure of competency but Indiana’s test is flawed. Specifically, he and the committee advocate for less weight to be given to the Multistate Bar Exam. This is a multiple choice test, a format many law school graduates are unfamiliar with, and covers subjects not germane to Indiana law.
“I don’t think it’s a quality of student issue,” Katz said, noting he has encountered “young lawyers who are as brilliant as anybody I’ve worked with and some even more so.”
While passage rates have been dropping at all Indiana law schools, a chasm in results between institutions appears to be deepening.
Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Notre Dame Law School have had higher pass rates compared to IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law and Valparaiso University Law School, according to Standard 509 reports from the American Bar Association. But preliminary results from the February and July 2017 exams show that gap is widening.
Both IU Maurer and Notre Dame had overall preliminary pass rates for the July 2017 bar at or slightly below 90 percent. However, Notre Dame Dean Nell Jessup Newton discouraged comparing the South Bend law school to the other legal education institutions in the state because relatively few Notre Dame graduates sit for the Indiana exam.
IU McKinney’s preliminary overall pass rate was 60.5 percent.
Valparaiso declined to release its results until after the exam appeals process is complete.
According to the Indiana Office of Admissions and Continuing Education, the Board of Law Examiners is hoping to have the review completed in time so any candidate who successfully appealed can participate in the Oct. 16 admissions ceremony.
Andrew Klein, dean of IU McKinney, said after the appeals process, his school’s score may bump up to either equal or slightly exceed the 61 percent posted for the July 2016 exam.
Still, Klein repeatedly emphasized, “It’s not good enough.”
To increase its passage rate, the Indianapolis school is directing students to take courses on the subjects that are tested on the bar exam. Klein said the curriculum is not being transformed into three years of bar preparation classes but students who end the first year with a grade point average below 3.0 are being given extra attention.
Also, the law school has hired a director of academic and bar success and is collecting data from past test takers to identify the elements that better position the students to pass. The school is seeing that individuals who work full time while studying for the exam are failing at a higher rate than those who clear the decks and devote more time to preparation.
“If we lean in together we’re going to improve,” Klein said. “I’m confident our students are capable of passing the bar exam.”
Katz said he applauded law schools’ increased attention to the bar exam. He called it a positive development since many students are graduating with substantial debt and put in a horrendous position if they fail the bar.
Still, he warned against putting too much focus on the bar exam and essentially subverting the curriculum to teaching to the test. Again, he reiterated, the best antidote for that was to fix the Indiana Bar Exam.
Hitchcock is continuing to work at the Fort Wayne firm of Christopher C. Myers & Associates, where during law school she was a paralegal, but her alma mater is defunct. Indiana Tech closed its law school in June 2017, announcing the decision just weeks after the embarrassment of having only two members of its inaugural class pass the Indiana exam in July 2016.
Hitchcock was shocked and scared by the results. The law school began integrating bar exam practice tests into the curriculum and covered the costs of the BARBRI bar prep course after graduation.
Even so, Hitchcock sees her degree as stained by the decision to close the law school. She believes the blame for the closure was wrongly placed on the students, saying that even those who had low LSAT scores still deserved a chance to study the law.
Also she pointed to the pass rate of the 2017 graduates. She said 15 members had taken the state bar, turning in a first-time pass rate of 66.7 percent. Indiana Tech did not respond to a request to confirm the law school’s passage rates.
“In the end, the law school didn’t fail,” Hitchcock said. “(Now-retired President Arthur) Snyder gave up on us.”•