Douglas Rush, a former lawyer and assistant dean at the St. Louis University Law School (he’s currently working toward a Ph.D. in higher education), has been gathering research on this question. He and his co-author, St. Louis Univ. research methodology associate professor Hisako Matsuo, have written the paper “Does Law
School Curriculum Affect Bar Examination Passage?” scheduled for publication in the upcoming Journal of Legal Education. In it, Rush writes:
The “conventional wisdom” among law school faculties and deans is that law students, especially law students who academically rank low in their class, should take as many of the courses whose subject matter is tested on state bar exams (i.e. contracts, torts, property, etc.) as possible in order to improve their chance of passing state bar exams…. Many law schools mandate that low-ranked law students take these courses in their second and third years of law school in the belief that doing so increases the ability of those students to pass state bar examinations.
To test this theory, Rush and Matsuo documented every student’s courseload for five different graduating classes at the St. Louis Law School, analyzing the number of bar topic courses taken against bar passage rates the first time the students sat for the exam. Their results were unequivocal: no relationship existed between law school courseloads and the passage rate of students ranked in the first, second or fourth quarters of their law school class, while only a weak relationship existed for students who ranked in the third quarter. Overall, Rush writes, “students in the upper two quartiles passed the exam at an extremely high rate and those in the fourth quartile failed at a high rate, regardless of which classes they took in law school.” The researchers repeated the test in 2007 using data from the Hofstra University School of Law, with identical results (which do not appear in the study).
I have often heard struggling students, steered into bar courses, complain that they are blocked from taking the courses that drew them to law school in the first place. Perhaps law schools need to tailor their academic advising for at-risk students. Immigration law, poverty law or civil rights law may not be on the bar, but they may engage more intensely a student who wants to enter the legal profession to work in those areas. What about so-called "enrichment" courses like legal history? Especially if a student takes seminars where they are more likely to engage in class discussion, or takes courses with faculty-supervised writing requirements, these courses have something to offer our at-risk students.
Law schools should do what they can to improve bar results. If the focus is on skills (including critical thinking and writing), rather than bar subjects, many law schools should welcome at-risk students back into the law & humanities curriculum.