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Cornell Tops in Bar Exam Pass Rate

Thomas Adcock
New York Law Journal

Ninety-nine percent of Cornell Law School graduates passed on their first attempt at the New York state bar examination in July, placing it first among the state's 15 law schools, which together tallied a historically high 91 percent average pass rate.
It was an all-time record for Cornell Law, reversing a downward slide during the past three years and returning the Ithaca, N.Y., school to its place in the traditional troika of top-scoring institutions alongside New York University School of Law and Columbia Law School. Two other records were achieved this year, according to figures from the New York State Board of Law Examiners, which administered the two-day test on July 29-30:

The average pass rate for graduates of New York law schools taking the July exam for the first time was 91 percent, surpassing the same group last year by 2.8 percentage points and registering one point higher than graduates of law schools outside the state whose schools, like all law campuses in New York, are certified by the American Bar Association.

Candidates for the July exam, including out-of-state and foreign law school graduates, numbered an all-time high of 11,176.

The ever changeable positions of fourth and fifth place in the New York statistics went this year to Fordham University School of Law and New York Law School , respectively. Meanwhile, St. John's University School of Law , usually at fourth or fifth place, slipped to the seventh spot this year despite increasing its pass rate to 92 percent over last year's 90 percent. Last year, a steadily improving Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law broke into the top three ranked campuses when Cornell Law's pass rate was eight points below this year's score. Even though Cardozo Law registered a slight improvement this year -- 93 percent versus 92 percent in 2007 -- Fordham Law and New York Law substantially increased their respective scores by six and four points, sending Cardozo to sixth place. Generally, the law schools improved a few points on pass rates, reflected by a two-point boost in the state average this year -- 90 percent versus 88 percent in 2007, for a first-ever average in the 90th percentile.

Only two institutions lost ground: Albany Law School fell to an 82 percent pass rate from 86 percent last year, while Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y., dropped to 85 percent this year from 87 percent in 2007. Three other campuses -- the University at Buffalo Law School , Syracuse University College of Law and City University of New York School of Law scored the same this year as last, in the low 80th percentile. "Sure we're quite proud of our students," said Cornell Law Dean Stewart J. Schwab of the eight-point jump registered at his school. "But we don't want to unduly crow [because] I don't think we changed our teaching style or overall pedagogical mission." From year to year, Schwab added, "the difference in scoring always involved two or three or maybe four students." This year, he said, only one of the 132 Cornell Law students taking the July exam for the first time failed. "I feel bad for him -- or her," said Schwab. "I don't want to know the name because somebody would want to force it out of me."

Dean Richard A. Matasar of New York Law credits his school's persistent advance in pass rates -- as low as 68 percent in 2004 compared with this year's 94 percent -- with a full flowering of its Comprehensive Curriculum Program. Matasar said analysis of pass rates in prior years showed that "virtually all" students who failed the bar exam were in the bottom quarter of their class, and therefore in need of progressive intervention through the special program. Such help includes remedial writing and legal reasoning courses, curtailment of elective courses, review of first-year work in the final year of study and what he calls the "nowhere to hide" component -- a tuition-free extra semester of intensive study.Critics at some rival campuses said they suspect New York Law of artificially boosting its student pass rate by encouraging those at the bottom of their classes to take the February 2009 exam as an alternative. Matasar, however, said New York Law students who opted for February represent a scoring factor of less than 1 percent.

"If a school is attentive, it can help its students with the skills they need to pass the bar," said Matasar. "I think all schools are serious about this. It's the name of the game." Dean William Treanor likewise focused on bottom-quarter performers at Fordham Law by appointing a faculty committee that added more counseling for 1-Ls, increased bar exam preparation courses and instituted a "stress workshop." "Stress is a very big part of the problem" for failing bar candidates, said Treanor. "Any help we can provide our students makes a big difference in their careers." He added, "If you're starting out on a career without having passed the bar on the first try, you're starting in a difficult position." But in any given year at any given campus, said Matasar, "anything can happen" to negatively skew a pass rate. The numbers, he added, need not be dramatic.

This year at Albany Law, for example, 30 of the 173 students taking the July exam for the first time failed -- only four more than last year, but enough to send Albany from ninth place down to 14th this year. So far in the data analysis process, Albany Law officials have not determined a specific cause or causes for its pass rate dip, which has the practical, and punitive, effect of a consequent drop in the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings."People in this business hate the U.S. News rankings," said Connie Mayer, acting dean of Albany Law, "but we have to live with it." Mayer, who resumes her post as associate dean for academic affairs when Dean Thomas F. Guernsey returns from sabbatical next month, noted that Albany Law's pass rate had been significantly lower in the past, as low as 66 percent in 2003. But over the past three years, the rate has "kind of settled" for the better in the mid-80s. The disparity, she said, is due to Guernsey's insistence since becoming dean in 2002 on a more select and smaller student body.

Foreign-educated first-time exam takers registered a nine-point pass rate increase this year -- 55 percent versus 46 percent in 2007 -- for the most improved subgroup of candidates. The overall pass rate, including repeat candidates and graduates of schools not certified by the ABA, was 75 percent, an advance from last year's 71 percent. Matasar said of the improved performance among all subgroups, "The cost of not passing the bar exam is pretty high. Students have got that figured out. So they're working their butts off."