New York core.

Providing support as students face the bar exam

Every practicing attorney knows the challenge of sitting for the bar exam. It’s a challenge that the School of Law takes seriously as well. Giving our students the tools and strategies to pass the exam and launch their legal careers is a vital part of our mission – and part of the school’s commitment to our students.

Integral to that effort is Bill MacDonald, who is in his second year as the School of Law’s director of academic success. As the next test date for the New York State bar exam of Feb. 26-27 approaches, we chatted with him about how the school is helping its students to pass the bar and position themselves for success beyond law school.

How have our students been doing lately on the New York State bar exam?
Our bar passage rate has generally risen since the introduction of the Uniform Bar Exam in 2016.  The most recent bar exam in July 2018 proved to be pretty tough, as reflected by a drop in bar passage rates across the country, so while our raw bar passage rate went down a bit on that exam, in comparison with our peer schools in New York, we’ve actually been stable.

Are there certain groups of students who benefit from a little extra help to get ready?
Yes.  By looking at the data, we’ve identified three cohorts of students who especially benefit from specific types of targeted support.

Bill MacDonald.

Bill MacDonald
Director of Academic Success
427 O’Brian, North Campus

Why is our students’ bar passage rate so important?
Inherently, we are teaching our students to practice as attorneys, and if you can’t pass the bar exam you can’t do that. We want to give our students all the options in their career, and it’s part of our responsibility as a law school to make sure students have all the opportunities they can. Beyond that, law schools are in a competitive environment, and when students are deciding where to go, they look at raw data including bar exam passage rates. So having a higher bar passage rate makes our school more attractive.

First are students who do not take full advantage of commercial bar prep courses. While almost everybody enrolls in these intense programs, they each have an online component that works very well for some, but for some of our students that flexibility is a danger. So we want to encourage people to come and watch the lectures in person. We’ll open special areas of the library just for our bar study students, with coffee and snacks. We also have asked our professors to be available to answer questions in some of these content areas. We want to make the school a study hub for our students as they prepare for the exam.

There are also some students who benefit from support around transitions, like coming into law school, or graduating from law school and preparing for the bar exam. We can use data like LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs to identify many of these students.  I teach a summer program called Jump Start that brings these incoming students in two weeks before school officially begins, to give them a really good running start in terms of what’s different about law school than undergraduate work. This gives me a chance to work with them up front, establish relationships with them, and make sure that they’re staying on track with the skills they’ll need for the bar exam.  

The third group, our international students, sometimes struggle with the bar exam. We also invite these students to be part of the Jump Start program, which for them is expanded with two additional weeks of preparatory classes to help them get up to speed on the U.S. legal system. For example, I had one student who just wasn’t familiar with the word ‘to serve’ as a legal term, as in serving a subpoena. These little things can form an unnecessary hindrance for our international students.

How is the faculty involved in supporting our students for the bar exam?
Our substantive-law professors have been great about talking with me about what our students can expect to see on the bar exam. We’re also working on a curriculum map to identify, among the courses we teach, what areas are covered on the bar exam. And the faculty has been proactive about working with me to develop smart new ways to further integrate bar exam content and skills practice throughout their courses. For example, civil procedure is the No. 1 subject area on the exam. So our professors know that if they can throw a civil procedure question into a case they’re teaching, they should do it.

These are systemic changes we’re making so students have the best opportunity to do well, without limiting their ability to pursue the area of law they really want to study. Ultimately, as the State of New York's law school, our goal is to consistently exceed the State bar passage average and further distinguish ourselves as a leader in preparing our students to practice.