Minority bar passage program is paying big dividends in its 15th year


by Linda Laderman
Legal News

A minority bar passage program is yielding results that far exceed the overall pass rate among test takers for Michigan’s July bar exam, according to attorney Rosa Weaver, committee chair for the initiative.

“The program has done phenomenally well by partnering law students with attorney mentors who hone in on essay writing,” said Weaver, a sole practitioner. “Last year we had a 95 percent pass rate among the 35 graduates taking the course before the July bar.”

Known as The Walter Bentley Minority Bar Passage Program, the course has been part of the Wolverine Bar Association’s agenda for 15 years, but was renamed two years ago when, Bentley, one of its chief advocates, died.

“We renamed the program after Detroit attorney Walter Bentley to honor his legacy and commitment to the course,” Weaver said. “Unlike traditional bar preparation courses, the minority bar course concentrates solely on essay writing skills and confidence-building strategies for July test takers.”

Mentors work with bar candidates to teach them how to deliver an essay that will give the bar examiners the information in the format they are looking for, Weaver said.

“Over the six-week to eight-week course, volunteer/attorney mentors devote their time to honing a student’s essay skills and techniques through small breakout groups and testing on bar essays pulled from past exams,” she said.
Graduates from Michigan law schools are the primary attendees, but bar candidates from out-of-state schools like Alex Simpson, an Indiana University Maurer School of Law alum and current president of the Wolverine Bar Association, also have taken advantage of the program.

“I participated in the program because I thought the key to passing the bar exam was not only about being smart, but it was also about practice, practice, practice,” said Simpson, an attorney for Microsoft. “The traditional programs don’t focus on the essay portion as much as the minority bar program does. That’s one of the things the minority bar course does really well.”

Simpson stresses that the minority bar passage curriculum is not a reflection of a lack of ability among its participants, rather it is a focused support system for minority bar candidates, who are often the first among their relatives to have a post-graduate degree.

“It’s not that these students need more assistance than any other group of law school graduates, but many times, for people like me, we are the first attorneys in our families,” Simpson said. “Where other people might have parents, close relatives, or friends who are there to give them guidance, some of these students may not have that. This is a tool that creates extra confidence when they sit down at the exam table.”

Simpson’s words resonate with Jessica Mills, an associate at Edwards and Jennings in Detroit, and a 2016 graduate of Wayne State University Law School.

“Because African-Americans are historically under-represented in professional careers, you have fewer mentors who look like you, or peers from the same social background so it can be intimidating,” Mills said. “The program is a confidence builder. It reminds you that you can do it, that you made it into law school, that you can pass this bar exam. It teaches you strategy in a comfortable, encouraging, but real world environment because your mentor is a practicing attorney.”

While the minority bar program continues to encourage under-represented groups to take the class, any law student is welcome to participate, according to Weaver, who now heads a firm with offices in Detroit and Houston.

“Last year we had 10 students who were not African-American,” said Weaver. “We don’t turn anyone away. If you want to learn, we’ll help you regardless of age or race.”

Mills, who passed the bar in July, said she was touched by the response she received from her family and neighbors after she got her exam results.

“I was the first attorney in my family and in my neighborhood, so when I passed the bar everyone was coming up to me and congratulating me. They even announced it in my church,” Mills recalled. “I would be a tutor for the program. It was super helpful. If I can help in that process, I’d volunteer.”