More flexible bar passage standard planned

The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar will continue to enforce its bar passage rules, known as Standard 316, but will consider individual law school circumstances that arise from COVID-19 if the school’s required bar passage rate for graduates falls below 75 percent over two years.

The COVID pandemic interfered with plans for in-person bar exams, so many states this year held bar exams in October instead of July.

In announcing the changes at its Nov. 20 public meeting, the council said law schools failing to meet Standard 316 could submit pandemic-related information that demonstrates negative opportunities for their graduates to sit for the bar exam or for the school to meet compliance with the standard.

Under rules adopted in 2019, a law school faces a finding of noncompliance and loss of accreditation if out of compliance over two years.

Outside parties had asked for the suspension of Standard 316 during the COVID-19 period because of the bar exam’s changing schedule and the rule’s potential discriminatory effect on schools with strong minority enrollment.

But the council’s Questionnaire and Template Committee said its “recommendations balance several competing interests.”

“There is a need to collect outcomes data required by the U.S. Department of Education but also the understanding that any data on the bar exam passage rates during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be abnormal and need to have an ‘asterisk’ accompany it,” the committee’s report said.

The pandemic wreaked havoc with planning for in-person bar exams, and subsequently many states this year held bar exams in October instead of July, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

At the same time, five jurisdictions granted emergency diploma privileges, or approval for some law school graduates to practice without passing the bar.

Law schools will be asked to report two bar passage rates via a questionnaire that collects information about graduates who took the bar exam plus those who were admitted to the bar under diploma privilege.

The council serves as an independent arm of the ABA for accreditation of 200 U.S. law schools.

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