The average score on the Multistate Bar Exam fell to a 34-year low in July 2018, and bar exam pass rates have been mostly declining for more than a decade. One possible source of the problem? The bar exam doesn’t seem to test the skills and knowledge that measure a graduate’s competency to actually practice law.
But a new research partnership is trying to change that. The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal Profession and an Ohio law professor have teamed up for the Building a Better Bar project to collect information through dozens of focus groups about the knowledge and skills considered most important for new lawyers.
Deborah Merritt, a professor at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, is collaborating with IAALS on the project and has focused her re- search on legal education and the legal profession for about a decade. She said the National Conference of Bar Examiners, a nonprofit that creates bar exam materials with input from different states, relies on the state Supreme Courts to provide the definition of minimum competence.
“That definition has, quite surprisingly, gotten lost over time,” Merritt said. “I think in law we’ve taken partly a ‘We know it when we see it’ approach, and partly, ‘Well, if we build it on what law schools do, then that must be the right direction.” She said the bar exam is modeled on both law schools’ method of testing and the subject matters taught, but the practical realities of practicing law should instead guide how minimum competence is defined.