Oregon Supreme Court lowers bar passage standard

The Oregon Supreme Court recently lowered the required score to pass the state’s bar exam  — the test required for all law graduates to pass in order to become practicing attorneys.

Documents show that in March the deans of Oregon’s three law schools sent a letter to the Board of Bar Examiners (BBX) encouraging them to lower the minimum passing score, citing Oregon’s high standards compared to other states. At the time the letter was sent, Oregon had the third highest minimum score (284) in the country behind Delaware and California.

The deans of Oregon’s three law schools proposed that the score be lowered to 266, but the BBX decided to settle on 276. Vice President of the Faculty Senate Bill Harbaugh says that lowering the requirement will have a significant impact on student’s futures.

This turns out to be a very big change,” Harbaugh said. “It would have increased the pass rate for July 2016 from the 58 percent it was to 68 percent — meaning 49 people who failed under the old score would have passed had the new score been in place. A score of 266 would have meant 90 extra students passing, raising the pass rate to 78 percent.”

While lowering the score may be advantageous to students taking the exam, some law students are critical of the decision to lower the score. One law student, who wished to remain anonymous given the internal politics of the law school, said that the fundamental issue is that the law school doesn’t prepare students to pass the bar, instead choosing to try to lower the score.

The student cites the lack of access to bar prep classes which are offered after graduation and thus keep students from working in order to attend.

Critics of the court’s decision claim that lowering the score will lead to an increased amount of incompetent and underprepared lawyers in the state.

This concern was not ignored by the deans of Oregon’s law schools, who claimed that the bar exam was only one potential filter to deter unqualified attorneys from practicing law.

In the letter to the Oregon Supreme Court, the deans wrote that “…attorneys often assess a graduate’s legal knowledge and skills by reviewing the graduates own work performance in the real world as a law clerk over the course of weeks or months before making any offer of employment…”

Another potential filter to limit potentially incompetent lawyers before they progress further into law school is the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), a standardized entrance exam which gauges student’s comprehension in reading and writing.

A closer look at the LSAT scores of the state of Oregon’s three law schools indicate that the median score decreased over the past five years. Over that period, University of Oregon’s median score dropped by two points (159 to 157) while Willamette and Lewis and Clark’s decreased by four (155 to 151 and 161 to 157 respectively).

While there are questions as to how competent future lawyers will be, there are even bigger questions regarding the process that the BBX and the Oregon Supreme Court took to lower the scores.

The BBX went into a closed, executive session to make their decision.

The Emerald requested transcripts to determine the nature of the meeting, but the Oregon Supreme Court provided a non-specific page of minutes detailing the events of the meeting.

Given the lowered score, the results of the July bar exam could potentially be higher. In February, only 67 percent of law students in Oregon who took the exam passed.

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Michael is one of the Emerald's associate news editors. He does investigative work as well as stories about the UO Administration. Drop him a tip: [email protected]

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