Bar Exam: Results, Reform, and BBA Resources

With applications for the bar exam due on December 9 and the recent kickoff of our Bar Exam Coaching program, we’ve got the bar exam on our minds.  This coincides with a presentation by Board of Bar Examiners (BBE) Executive Director Marilyn Wellington to the BBA Council in November, shortly after the release of passage rates for the July 2016 exam.

While bar passage rates have dropped nationally for the last few years, Wellington believes that they are starting to level out.  Much of the drop was due to a 30-40 percent decrease in applications to law school, resulting in many schools expanding their applicant pools to previously unseen levels in order to keep class sizes steady.  Over the last few years, most schools have corrected for the application drop by decreasing their class sizes, leading Wellington to predict a corresponding correction in passage rates.

Graduates of our local law schools represent roughly 60% of Massachusetts bar exam takers.  Wellington described increasing efforts at these and other schools to prepare students for the bar exam.  Some provide bar preparatory courses for credit and/or tuition payment plans for third-party bar preparation courses.

In July, the overall Massachusetts bar exam passage rate was just under 71%.  For first time takers it was just under 80%, which is pretty strong, though still seven to eight percentage points lower than the passage rates of a decade ago.  The state continues to be slightly ahead of the national mean on the multiple choice portion of the exam.  However, the number of bar takers continues to decrease, and in July was at its lowest number since 1983.  Wellington explained that this is likely due to the impact of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE).

Massachusetts recently became the 26th state to adopt the UBE, though it will not be implemented in the state until July 2018.  The UBE tests only generally accepted legal principles and includes no local law.  It is still a two-day exam, consisting of a one-day multiple choice portion and a one-day essay portion.  The essay portion differs slightly from the current Massachusetts structure of 10 essay questions.  Instead, there are 6 essay questions for half the day and the Multistate Practice Test (MPT) for the other half, consisting of two 90-minute questions where test takers are given a case file containing all the needed information and asked to produce a type of legal document, such as a memo to a partner or a legislator.  The goal of the MPT is to:

test an examinee’s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation and complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish. The MPT is not a test of substantive knowledge. Rather, it is designed to evaluate certain fundamental skills lawyers are expected to demonstrate regardless of the area of law in which the skills are applied.

In addition to the UBE, each state adopting it still retains control over any local components they want to add as well as what UBE score they require for passage.  These details are still being worked out in Massachusetts, but Wellington explained that they are working on developing a free online course on local law issues rather than an additional local test like some other states require.  However, the main benefit of the UBE is how much flexibility it gives takers who can apply their score in any UBE state, giving them the ability to be more mobile and potentially consider more employment options.

This is the type of background information we have equipped our bar exam coaches with, as well as specifics of the exam and what students can expect.  While students are expected to prepare for the academic portion of the exam on their own, coaches are there to provide support from the legal community – mental, emotional, and practical preparation – and guidance on:

  • Time management
  • Effective study techniques
  • Stress management
  • Dealing with anxiety

Our Coaching Program was started in large part due to the efforts of Marilyn Wellington, SJC Justice Margot Botsford, and Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez.  It is managed at the BBA by our Member Engagement Manager Kristen Scioli White and Public Service Programs Coordinator Cassandra Shavney.  I am proud to be helping out with the program, both as a coach and in running a program this week on exam essay writing – The Anatomy of a Bar Exam Essay: Advice for Improving Your Score.  I won’t bore you here with the details, but it was well attended and the students and coaches present had a lot of great questions about the essay exam process and substance, that I did my best to answer based on my experiences and observations both taking the bar and tutoring students.  If you want more information about the coaching program please reach out to Cassandra (cshavney@bostonbar.org).

Thanks to Marilyn Wellington and the great work of the Board of Bar Examiners, and best of luck to all the applicants taking the bar in February 2017 and beyond.  We look forward to reporting on your success this spring!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association