Bar passage rates among University of Utah law students rise for a fourth consecutive year

For a fourth consecutive year the number of graduates from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law who have passed the Utah Bar Exam has notably risen.

Ninety percent of the 69 of S.J. Quinney College of Law students who took the bar exam in July in Utah passed the exam. Law graduates must pass the bar exam in order to become licensed to practice law in a particular state. Bar exam passage is celebrated as a milestone, which officially launches a lawyer’s career, while outcomes of the test also matter for evaluating the quality of law school programs to produce practice-ready attorneys whose skill sets allow them to succeed in a real-world setting upon graduation.

New statistics released by the Utah State Bar this week show a 3 percent increase in the number of U law school graduates who passed the bar on their first attempt in Utah when taking the test this summer.  As a comparison, in 2015, 82 percent of 95 first-time test-takers passed the Utah bar on their first attempt. In 2016, that number grew to 84 percent of the 90 students who took the test for the first time. In 2017, 88 percent of 85 U law students who took the Utah Bar Exam passed it on their first try. 

The newest round of bar passage scores comes four years after the College of Law initiated an ambitious plan to reach a goal of 100 percent bar passage and 100 percent professional employment placement among its law school graduates.

The news of better bar passage rates among students is encouraging to administrators who have implemented changes in curriculum and training to improve the bar passage outcomes for law graduates, said Robert Adler, dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law.

“We are pleased to see continued improvement in our bar passage rates among our law school graduates,” said Adler. “Improved performance on the bar exam shows not only shows how well prepared our students are at graduation, but it is also the last hurdle our students must overcome to use their law degrees for most of the jobs they seek. It is the final step they take in officially transitioning from the classroom to the courtroom,” he said.

Adler announced the 100/100 initiative in 2015 at the grand opening ceremony for the law school’s state-of-the-art building, which is designed to enhance innovation in legal education, bolster community service and provide students with new opportunities for skills training.

The U’s improved scores come at a time when law schools across the country have seen bar passage rates dip. While the root cause of the decline has been hotly debated, the U, which traditionally enjoys a higher-than-average bar passage rate, has achieved further improvement through a combination of innovation and hard work, Adler said. Strategies have focused on efforts to identify those students who have struggled early in their law school career, and to give them more focused help throughout law school rather than waiting for last-minute cramming just before the bar exam. The college also increased its faculty devoted to that task.

Adler wanted to find a way to inspire law students to keep pushing for excellence on the bar while bringing a message of positivity to the bleak narrative plaguing bar passage among law students nationally in recent years. To drum up support for the 100/100 initiative, he even trained and completed a 100-mile trail run.

The 100/100 initiative also includes concrete strategies to help students secure rewarding jobs following graduation. For example, the law school started to connect every law student with a practicing lawyer mentor through its Mentor U program. Since 2015, students have also had access to new incubator programs and rural lawyer placement to help graduates connect with employment opportunities in underserved communities. The school has also used its new building to focus more on intensive student-faculty learning opportunities through one-on-one and small group work, Adler said.

Also notable among Utah bar exam test-takers this year are Utah scores for the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), a metric used by law school administrators to compare law schools nationally on how well law students fare on licensure exams in their respective states —which in turn serves as an indicator for how much students have learned in law school and how well legal education programs have done to prepare their students to practice law after graduation.

Overall, this year’s national average MBE score was 139.5. The average for all test- takers in Utah was 144.6. The average for all University of Utah test-takers was 147.1, said Adler.

“Our increased performance in Utah held firm in the face of a national decline in MBE scores,” he noted.

Louisa Heiny, a professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law who has worked to mentor students in learning opportunities designed to help better prepare students for the bar, said she’s pleased to see an upward trend in passage rates among University of Utah students.

“The bar exam is the most difficult exam law students face. This show our students’ incredible dedication and determination. I am incredibly proud of each and every one of our students,” she said.