George A. Shohet, an attorney in Venice, still believes where a student goes to law school has no bearing on his or her ability to pass the bar.
"People want a standardized approach to verify whether people who go to law school actually pass the bar; I get that," says Shohet, who is representing Southern California Institute of Law (SCIL) in its dispute with the state over accreditation. "But graduating from law school doesn't necessarily translate to great test-taking abilities."
As state and national bar examiners move to make schools more account- able, SCIL continues to challenge a new California requirement: Starting in 2016, schools could lose their state accreditation if 40 percent of their graduates haven't passed the bar exam over the previous five-year period (S. Calif. Inst. of Law v. Biggers
, No. 13-193 (C.D. Cal. appeal filed July 12, 2013).)
SCIL's bar-passage rate is "persistently" near the bottom among accredited California law schools, according to the State Bar examiners' motion to dismiss. In 2012, when 43 of its graduates took the bar, not one passed. From 2007 to 2012, SCIL graduates have taken the bar 347 times and passed only 23, a rate of 6.6 percent.
Meanwhile, the American Bar Association's Standards Review Committee is considering proposing an even tougher standard: For national accreditation, 80 percent of a school's graduates would have to pass a state bar exam within two years. "The general consensus is that the current bar-passage standard [75 percent over five years] is meaningless," says Jeffrey E. Lewis, chairman of the committee.
Shohet says linking accreditation with bar passage is unfair to many deserving students. "We don't want charlatans running around, but SCIL isn't being accused of scamming anybody," Shohet says. "If SCIL adopted a teach-to-the-test methodology, I'm sure it would have a sterling passage rate." But that also would "diminish the school's ability to teach critical thinking, a skill associated with being a competent lawyer."
Pepperdine University associate law professor Robert Anderson - whose research has shown that California's bar exam is one of the two toughest in the U.S. - agrees legal education is hard to measure. "It's a black box whether the education students receive is increasing their probability of passing the bar," Anderson says. But he says there's "no doubt" California's 40 percent standard remains low.
SCIL - relatively affordable at about $33,000 for a JD - serves a more disadvantaged demographic than other accredited law schools, says Shohet. So the new rule is tantamount to telling SCIL students, "No, you don't get to pass go. You don't get to try to do this," he says. And if SCIL loses its accreditation, its students will face yet another hurdle - passing the "baby bar," the competency test required of first-year students at California's unaccredited law schools.