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Indiana law schools likely will meet new ABA bar exam standard

May 20, 2019

Law schools must now have 75 percent of their graduates pass the bar exam within two years of completing their J.D. degrees after a twice-defeated accreditation standard was approved Friday by the American Bar Association. Opponents worry the change will hurt efforts to diversify the legal profession.

The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar approved the ultimate bar passage standard, which revises Standard 316. In a memorandum, the council maintained the new rule sets forth more straightforward and clearer expectations for law schools while protecting students from taking on significant debt to pay for a legal education but not being able to meet the requirements to practice law.

“Most students go to law school to become lawyers,” Barry Currier, managing director for the ABA law school accreditation process, said in a statement after the approval of the new standard. “Becoming a lawyer requires passing the bar exam. How well a school’s graduates perform on the bar exam is a very important accreditation tool to assess the school’s program of legal education.”

Ultimate bar passage data from the ABA indicates the Indiana law schools that are admitting students will be able to meet the new standard.

The two-year passage rate for 2015 graduates is as follows:

• Indiana University Maurer School of Law, 85.48 percent;

• Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, 83.92 percent, and;

• University of Notre Dame Law School, 97.19 percent.

For 2016 graduates:

• IU Maurer, 93.55 percent;

• IU McKinney, 83.65 percent, and;

• Notre Dame, 94.01 percent.

Valparaiso Law School’s ultimate bar passage rate was 69.35 percent for 2015 graduates and 65.99 percent for 2016 graduates. The northwest Indiana school stopped enrolling students in the Fall of 2018 and has announced it will close in 2020.

The revised bar passage standard was defeated twice by the ABA House of Delegates. After the proposal was rejected at the February 2017 mid-year meeting, the council collected additional data on passage rates and engaged in conversations with some law school deans and association leaders. However, the House of Delegates again voted against the revision at the February 2019 mid-year meeting.

Pushback to the new standard was strong. Opponents were concerned the change to the passage rate would disproportionately impact minority students and law schools in states where the passing score is comparatively high.  

Indiana University Maurer School of Law dean Austen Parrish was among those who argued against the adoption of the revised standard.

He asserted the new rule would not improve the quality of legal education but put the focus more strongly on admissions. Acknowledging the concerns over debt and law schools taking lower qualified students who cannot pass the bar, Parrish still viewed the proposed bar passage standard as the ABA taking a paternalistic approach and barring students — most often from immigrant, minority and less-privileged backgrounds — from the opportunity to practice the law.

After the standard’s adoption, Currier said the council understands this is a complex matter and appreciates the attention from the House of Delegates and the legal education community.

“After a thorough review of their concerns and several years of study …, we are confident the changes to Standard 316 are a significant improvement over the current standard and should not have the adverse impacts predicted by those who expressed concerns about the revisions,” Currier said in a statement. “The Council will closely monitor bar outcomes under the new standard. If further change is needed or would be desirable, the Council can make those changes.”

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