The bleak short-term future for law school bar passage rates

This is the last (for now!) about the bar exam. And it's not about what caused the MBE and bar passage rate declines--it's what it means for law schools going forward. The news is grim.

There's no question there was a decline in the law school applicant profile from the Class of 2013 to the Class of 2014. The dispute that Jerry Organ and I (and others) have had is whether the decline in bar passage rates should have been as stark. But going forward, the Class of 2015, and 2016, and likely 2017, and probably 2018, will each be incrementally worse profiles still.

And it's not simply at the median LSAT and GPA. It's at the below-median profiles, particular LSAT, that should concern schools.

Those with LSAT scores below 150, and even 155, are at a substantially higher risk of failing the bar in most jurisdictions. For the Class of 2016, about 2/3 of schools have a 25th percentile LSAT of 155 or lower--that is, 25% of their incoming classes have an LSAT at or below 155. And over 80 schools have a 25th percentile LSAT at 150 or lower.

Furthermore, about half of schools have a 50th percentile LSAT of 155 or lower, and a full 30 schools have a 50th percentile of 150 or lower.

The increasing willingness of schools to accept these low-LSAT performers is a function of a combination of decisions made years ago. U.S. News & World Report evaluates only LSAT medians. This decision distorts evaluation of law student quality. To ensure that their medians remained as strong as possible, schools increasingly admitted more "imbalanced" students--students with a median or better LSAT and substantially below-median GPA, or a median or better GPA and a substantially below-median LSAT. That meant the 25th percentile LSAT began to sag at more schools--the bottom of the class became worse at a higher rate than the middle of the class. (There are other, less-measurable decisions at the moment, such as factoring the highest LSAT score instead of the average LSAT score of applicants, which probably distorts student quality; possible decisions to academically dismiss fewer students; educational programming decisions that may channel more students toward the kinds of courses that may not sharpen legal analysis for the bar exam, to the extent it affects bar passage; transfer-related decisions at schools; and much more.)

As bar passage rates decline--perhaps sharply--we should see still-falling rates, particularly from institutions that made the admissions decision years ago to prop up the median but sacrifice the quality of the bottom of the class.

For schools that made this decision years ago, the results will become increasingly sharp in the years ahead. If a school did not sufficiently reduce its class size, or worried about LSAT medians, it favored short-term interests; those short-term interests are becoming long-term as those classes graduate; are likely face the more significant debt (as the below-median students are less likely to have obtained merit-based aid); pass the bar at lower rates; in that cohort, are likely find employment at lower rates (if they are unable to pass the bar); and trickle back out to an already-reluctant applicant pool.

I've said before that I'm not a "doomsday" predictor. But these bar results portend a significantly worsening portrait for law school bar passage rates in the years ahead, if schools made short-term decisions years ago and are now facing the long-term results. For the long-term schools with visionary deans and faculties anticipating the long-term future of the institution, the results may not be quite so grim. (But we shall see how many of those there are.)