Sherman: The law school is falling short and pulling standards with it

As a homeschool student, my entire year’s grade depended on standardized testing. This angered me for one specific reason: I couldn’t get a perfect score even if I answered every question correctly. In state testing, you are evaluated as falling into a certain percentile range. I could score in the 99th percentile as many times as I liked, but there was no such thing as the 100th percentile.

I couldn’t fathom the idea of being compared to other students rather than knowing how many questions I answered correctly versus how many I answered incorrectly. Imagine my surprise when I went to law school and realized everything would be graded on a curve (I actually had to ask what that meant.)

Law schools have been hemorrhaging money for the last decade and many have lowered their standards for admission. It’s easier to get into law school than it has ever been and the curve means it’s also easier to pass law school. You don’t have to be smart to get a law degree; you just have to be smarter than whatever your school chooses to label the bottom of the curve. I have a theory that you could take a final blindfolded and still get a C. I have not tested this theory.

With this status of law school grading, the bar exam remains the last guardian of the galaxy — for lawyers, that is. And UO has not done well against the bar exam. In the past four years, UO law students have not seen more than 79 percent of first-time bar passage. In 2015, UO students saw a 64.2 percent first-time bar passage rate. Or, to put it in homeschool grading terms, a D. (Passage rates provided by Dean Espinola, UO School of Law.)

So what steps has UO Law taken to fix this problem? Well, the students at UO (and other Oregon law schools) petitioned the Oregon Bar to lower the standard. Essentially, they requested the Oregon Bar adjust its grading to meet the new low of the student curve. The Oregon Bar obliged, setting the new passage rate to take effect on the July 2017 bar.

To fairly represent the information, the Oregon Bar passage rate was higher than nearly every other rate in the country. Oregon law students were required to meet a higher standard in order to become lawyers. This meant passing the bar in Oregon meant something.

Now, I’m not sure what it means.

The curious thing about petitioning for a lower bar passage rate is that UO Law had seen a correlation between bar passage rates and bar prep courses. The UO students who took bar prep and took it seriously consistently passed the bar in high numbers.

If bar prep correlates to bar passage, why did UO Law just cut one of the summer courses that’s covered on the bar?

I am not an exceptional student; I am not the top of my class. But the profession of law matters more to me than the ease with which I am personally able to pass the exam.
This summer, UO Law only offered three traditional law courses, all of which covered required bar information. At the last minute, this offering was cut down to two.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be in my position, this not only meant an inability to take a bar material course but also complicated graduation planning since there wasn’t a replacement offering.

The cognitive dissonance between the problem of bar passage and the proposed solution didn’t stop with canceling a summer course. Next fall, the only bar prep course offered is limited to 14 students despite the fact each year has approximately 100 students. In spring, the only course is limited to 30 students. It should also be noted that these courses are for “Legal Writing Bar Prep” and there are no courses offered through UO Law for general bar prep.

Maybe it was easier to petition for a lower passage rate than to offer more preparation opportunities. I mean, it’s not like we can foresee a political situation in which it would be helpful to have well-trained lawyers at the ready.

I suppose like most things, I’m helpless to change this. I asked the administration to reconsider and nothing happened. I’ve rearranged my schedule to maintain my early graduation date and I will do what many have done before me: jump off the sinking ship and swim while I still can.

There is still a part of me that is annoyed that I couldn’t get a 100 percent on my state exams even if I earned a perfect score. Now, I’m annoyed that I can get a 100 percent without getting every question correct – that’s the nature of the curve.

Maybe I am in the minority but I think we should better prepare students rather than lower our expectations for them. I think we should continue to have the highest standard instead of submitting to the bottom of the curve. I say these things knowing that I may not pass the bar exam. I am not an exceptional student; I am not the top of my class. But the profession of law matters more to me than the ease with which I am personally able to pass the exam.

In 2015, Douglas Perry published an op-ed in the Oregonian that asked: Are new Oregon lawyers among the ‘dumbest’ in the country? The piece was responded to by an attorney positing that those who pass the Oregon bar exam should be congratulated: due to the high standard, this was an accomplishment that would make the lawyers in this state better.

What about now? Should we still be congratulating those who pass the bar exam or should we be investing in stock for Legalzoom?


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Esther Sherman

Esther Sherman