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Bar exam passage rates up

The number of law school students passing July’s bar exam in Maryland jumped 5 percent this year.

About 78 percent of those who took July’s exam in the state passed, compared to 76 percent last year, according to statistics from the State Board of Law Examiners.

The spike is the highest passage rate in state in the past five years. About 75 percent of test-takers passed in 2009 and 2010 and 77 percent passed in 2011, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

Jeffrey C. Shipley, secretary of the Board of Law Examiners, cautioned against reading too much into the numbers, which he said rise and dip from one year to the next.

“I don’t think there is anything specifically attributable on a year-to-year basis,” Shipley said. “It’s not an upward trend. There have been outlier high exams in the past. I don’t think it’s specifically attributable to anything or a certain a long-term pattern.”

The passage rate for first-time test-takers, 83 percent, is also up 2 percent from last year. In fact, the passage rate for first-timers had hovered around 81 percent the previous four years.

The law schools

For the second year running, the University of Baltimore School of Law’s passage rate outpaced that of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, even though UM Carey is considered the more prestigious school. (U.S. News & World Report ranked UM Carey 41st in its 2013 ranking of law schools, while UB Law came in at 134.)

At UB Law, 83 percent passed this July’s exam, an uptick of 1 percent from last year. The rate for first-timers also rose 1 percent from last year, to 86 percent, which is a bit lower than its first-time passage record of 88 percent in 2011.

At UM Carey, the July passage rate of 79.6 percent fell below the state average, but was significantly higher than its 75 percent passage rate in 2012. The school’s bar passage rate hovered around 85 percent from 2010 to 2011.

About 85 percent of first-timers at UM Carey passed, a 4 percent jump from the previous year. The comparable figures from 2009 to 2011 hovered around 88 percent.

UM Carey Dean Phoebe A. Haddon did not respond to requests for comment for this article. (SEE UPDATE BELOW)

“We want to be rigorous about how students are doing every step of the way,” said UB Law Dean Ronald Weich. “Bar passage is a very concrete, tangible sign of the law school’s success. It’s not the only sign of success, but it is an important one.”

The test is given in February and July, and the February exam tends to have more people who were nontraditional students and fewer first-time takers. While the July exams always have higher passage rate than February’s, each hover in their respective vicinities, Shipley said: If there is a jump one year, it will return to the norm the next, Shipley said.

“If you look at July exams over the past five or six years it’s going to be 75, 76, 74 [percent],” Shipley said. “There’s not that much difference. February exams are going to be 63, 65 [percent]. You definitely can’t look at July and February of the same year and consider one to be an uptick.”

Scores for the LSAT — the test given to prospective law students — don’t provide any clear answer for the variations, either.

While students in a given incoming class don’t all graduate at the same time and some drop out, the Class of 2013 is made up primarily of people who entered law school in 2010. At UB Law, the average LSAT score remained steady at 155 for incoming first-year students in 2009 and 2010.

At UM Carey, the median LSAT score rose from 160 in 2009 to 161 in 2010, compared to the 5 percent jump in passage rate between those years.

“It’s hard to pinpoint one factor,” Weich said. “It may not be possible to tease out what causes this or that in the data.”

Weich said he would like to see passage rates at UB Law continue to improve. He said planned changes to the law school’s core curriculum — more emphasis on writing and practical experience — will contribute to raising the bar passage rate even more.

“There’s always going to be improvement in what we are doing,” Weich said. “Are we looking for better results? We are doing exceedingly well in bar passage, like we always look to do.”

Update: Although Dean Haddon’s staff responded to us before press time, the Dean herself was traveling and not able to respond to our requests for comment prior to Friday’s deadline. On Monday, she wrote, “Although the results show some improvement over the last year, they remain of concern to me. We will expand the efforts begun this year to improve next year’s numbers.”

The original version of this story, published Friday, incorrectly stated the overall statewide passage rate for those who took the General Bar Exam in July 2013 as well as the passage rate for first-time test takers.  Both figures have been corrected.  The Daily Record regrets the error.