Sunday, May 04, 2008

What Law Schools Should Tell Applicants

In a previous post, I criticized the approach the ABA has proposed for including bar passage rates in the accreditation process. This post considers the same question from the standpoint not of accreditation but of the information law schools ought to provide to applicants.

Most law students study law in order to practice it. For most of them, practice requires passing the bar. Naturally enough, they want information on how likely they are to pass according to what school they go to. There is currently no way they can get that information.

To see the problem, imagine two law schools: Harford and Podunk. Harford, having its choice of students, admits ninety with LSAT scores of 180, the highest possible, and ten with LSAT scores of 160—a mix of affirmative action admissions, children of generous donors, and students admitted due to a bug in the admissions office software. Podunk admits ninety students with LSAT scores of 160, ten with scores of 180—students rejected by Harford due to the same bug.

Both classes graduate and take the bar. Harford reports a bar bassage rate of 80%, Podunk of 50%. Which is the better school to go to if you want to pass the bar?

Of the eighty Harford students who passed the bar, seventy-eight arrived with an LSAT score of 180, two with 160. Of the fifty Podunk students who passed, ten were students with 180 LSATs, forty were students with 160 . The bar passage rate for the low LSAT group was 20% for Harford, 44% for Podunk. For the high LSAT group it was 87% for Harford, 100% for Podunk. For both groups, Podunk did better.

Bar passage depends both on the school and on the student is; the average bar passage rate for the school, which is what gets published, shows the combined effect. So a school that admits better students may get a higher bar passage rate even if it does a worse job of teaching them.

To provide applicants the information they want, schools need to publish bar passage rates as a function of LSAT. A simple way of doing so would be to break LSAT scores into groups—176-180, 171-175, ...—and report bar passage rates for each group, perhaps summed over a period of two or three years to provide enough data for a meaningful figure. It might turn out that the elite schools did a worse job for everyone. More plausibly, it might well turn out that the elite schools did a better job for students with high LSATs and a worse job for students with low LSATs—useful information for the latter in deciding where to go.

[I am not at this point concerned with whether students ought to judge schools by bar passage rates, only in how we can help them to do it.]


Arnaud M. said...

The exact same problem goes for architecture schools. In order to practice, architects need a professional license which can take as long as architectural studies to get. However, schools never mention post-studies life to their prospective student, nor do they give any info out as to how well its graduates perform in the industry. As for the independent surveys available out there, they give very little factual information and statistics. Apparently more and more architecture graduates are forgoing the license altogether, and work for "the man" their whole life instead. Maybe schools should start thinking about how can they better prepare their students to pass their license exams?

Chris Hibbert said...

As an applicant, I think my strategy would be different from what you propose (or at least imply.) If I had a low score (and believed I deserved it), and thus a less than ideal chance of passing the bar, I'd be most concerned about pass rates, and I might go to the school that would better prepare me to pass the test. But if I was in the upper group, and thus almost certain to pass the test regardless of where I went, I'd be more likely to go with a prestige school since the difference between 100% and 87% (which I'd guess would be narrower in practice) isn't such a big deal, and the advantage of a better school on my resume might make more of a difference.

[Disclaimer: I'm a software engineer; we don't need licenses.]

Anonymous said...

BarBri is what prepares students to pass the bar exam, not law school. Law school is not a trade school. You take the courses that you substantively need MOST for the bar exam first, rather than last--and you can't take that portion ofthe bar exam that year. You have to relearn all that substantive black letter law to answer a whole mess of multiple choice questions--very different from a law school classroom or exam.

The bar exam is not like the actuary exams or the CPA exam where you can pass it an exam at a time or a portion at a time. It is 1 and done each time. You cannot focus on the multistate portion one time and then focus on the essays at a later date.

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting reasoning, but there seems to be a biasing mistake in it. Why do you think all students with LSAT scores of 180 in Podunk will pass the bar? Their future is determined by their LSAT score, but Harford's students' not? Are you angry with Podunk?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure your implicit assumption is correct. How highly correlated are LSAT scores and Bar exam success? Would GPA be a better ruler?