Rhode Island Bar Exam Info


Roger Williams has raised
the bar at its law school

The evidence? A higher percentage of graduates are passing the Rhode Island bar exam on their first try.

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Providence Journal Staff Writer

After an initial bad run, more graduates of the Ralph R. Papitto School of Law at Roger Williams University are passing Rhode Island's bar exam the first time they take it.

School administrators say that higher admissions standards, a more geographically diverse student body, curriculum changes and an infusion of resources aimed at better preparing students to take the bar are all responsible for the increased success of the new law school graduates.

Two years ago, The Providence Journal published a two-part series of stories about Rhode Island's only law school. The newspaper reported that 40 percent to 50 percent of Roger Williams' graduates who had taken the Rhode Island bar exam flunked.

From 1996 -- when the first crop of Roger Williams graduates sat for the Rhode Island bar -- through February 2002, the school's bar-passage rate ranged from a low of 45 percent to a high of 67 percent. In comparison, the pass rate for all test-takers ranged from 59 percent to 78 percent.

Since then, the school's pass rate for repeat takers of the bar has not shown much improvement. But statistics provided by the Rhode Island Supreme Court show that in July 2002 and July 2003, graduates of the Bristol law school who take the Rhode Island bar exam right after completing their studies are showing marked improvement in their bar-passage rate.

In July 2001, only 53.5 percent of Roger Williams' first-time takers passed the Rhode Island bar.

In July 2002, 69.4 percent of the first-time takers passed; and in July 2003, 69.6 percent of the first-time takers were successful.

The school's overall bar-passage rates -- which includes both first-time and repeat takers who sit for the bar in July and February -- still hovers between 37.9 percent and 64 percent -- indicating that those who are taking the bar multiple times and sometimes years after graduation, still have difficulty passing.

But the statistics indicate that more recent graduates of the law school are coming into the exam better prepared and are more competitive with graduates from other institutions.

David A. Logan, the new dean at the Roger Williams law school who arrived in Rhode Island last June, credits others in the school's administration, especially former interim dean Bruce I. Kogan, for ushering in reforms that have had a positive impact over the last two years.

Logan says that several changes have occurred at Rogers Williams that have made the law school both larger and better in the past two years.

The student body at the law school has become more geographically diverse and the school has been able to attract students with higher undergraduate grade-point averages and better scores on law school admission tests.

Roger Williams embarked on an aggressive recruiting campaign a few years ago and has infused much scholarship money to lure out-of-state students there.

"We have become much more aggressive in our use of merit-based scholarships to attract students with strong academic credentials and who would make an important contribution to the law school community," says Michael Yelnosky, a professor at the law school who also serves as the school's associate dean for academic affairs.

Many of those students will receive full-tuition and half-tuition scholarships to entice them to come to the Bristol campus. Roger Williams has allocated $1 million for merit scholarships to help defray the cost of the first year of law school for students who will be entering Roger Williams this fall, Yelnosky says.

During the past three years, the student body at Roger Williams law school has increasingly represented more states, according to Yelnosky. From 1997 to 1999, about half the school's students were Rhode Island residents. But now, only 24 percent of the student body is from Rhode Island.

Last fall, the school admitted students from 28 states with degrees from 127 undergraduate institutions.

Much money has been pured poured into marketing the school outside Rhode Island. As a result, Yelnosky says, Roger Williams has witnessed a huge increase in law school applications and can be more choosy about whom it will admit. For the class that started in the fall of 2001, the school received 1,030 applications and accepted 64 percent of them; for the class that began last fall, there were 1,547 applicants and only 42 percent were accepted.

While the law school has become more selective, Roger Williams has also increased the size of its student body. In 2001, there were about 475 students enrolled; now there are about 600.

Logan, the law school's new dean, said that historically, many of the students Roger Williams has attracted haven't been good test-takers. A member of the Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners told The Journal two years ago that the reason many students from Roger Williams flunked the state bar was because their writing skills were so poor that even if they passed the multiple choice part of the test, they could not pass the essay portion.

Logan says that Roger Williams decided to try to remedy those problems by hiring additional instructors of legal writing and requiring its students to spend more course hours studying subjects that are most frequently tested on bar exams.

Logan says he believes the reason first-time takers of the Rhode Island bar have improved their passage rate by 16 percent over the last two summers is because of "systemic educational program changes" that have taken place at Roger Williams.

"They've revamped the entire required curriculum to increase the certainty that every graduate will have had exposure" to all the areas that are tested on bar exams, no matter which state they choose to take the test in, Logan says.

The curriculum has been reformed to devote about 20 percent more time to subjects that make up a large chunk of bar exams -- including contracts, torts, property law, criminal law and procedure, constitutional law and evidence.

The school is also spending more time counseling students and in 2002, began offering a free bar-review course for its students, Logan says.

"The faculty recognized that we would not become a better law school unless we had a better bar-passage rate," the dean says.

Rhode Island is considered to be one of the harder states in which to pass the bar, Logan says, so the school's goal became not just one of increasing the percentage of its students passing the bar but meeting or exceeding the average state passage rate.

In late 2001, the school hired a new dean of students who serves as director of academic support. He holds a conference with every student in his or her last year of law school "to get them thinking about what it takes to pass the bar exam," Logan says.

Students are now encouraged not to work while studying for the bar exam and not to take the bar exams in Rhode Island and Massachusetts or Connecticut at the same time, Logan says.

Over the past two years, the school has kicked in money to hire a coach to help students prepare for the bar exam in their final year at Roger Williams. "It's a non-credit, optional bar-review course," says Logan, but most students take advantage of the course, which meets three times per week.

To increase the students' chances of scoring better on the essay part of the exam, Logan says the legal writing courses at Roger Williams are also more rigorous now and that the classes are smaller. While the law school once employed just one legal writing professor, it now has seven, including a director of the program.

"Our students are getting better and our faculty is getting better; there's no doubt about it," Logan says. "We're trying to do this one class at a time, trying to make each class and every hire a little bit better. We don't have superstars here, people like Alan Dershowitz or Larry Tribe [both high-profile Harvard Law School professors], but our faculty meets or exceeds all but the top 20 law schools in the country," he says. Most are graduates of the nation's top law schools.

Logan says that the changes at the Roger Williams law school have paid off, not just in Rhode Island but outside the state as well. According to statistics provided by the law school, 82 percent of last May's graduates who took the Massachusetts bar exam in July 2003 passed -- matching the statewide passage rate in Massachusetts for first-time takers and exceeding Roger Williams' July 2002 passage rate by 12 percentage points.

The news was also good from Connecticut. The bar-passage rate for the July 2003 exam in that state for new graduates of Roger Williams was 83 percent. This exceeded that state's average by 1 percentage point and the previous year's passage rate for Roger Williams' students by 8 percentage points.