Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Hardest Bar...Is the One You are Taking

A brouhaha has erupted among law students over an article from the ABA Journal that references recent blog posts that rank bar exams based on difficulty.[1]  One of these blog posts asserts that the Washington state bar exam is the third most difficult bar exam in the country.[2]  Could this really be true?  Can state bar exams be ranked by difficulty?  How is difficultly measured?  Is it an objective enough characteristic to accurately make this type of conclusion?  Is the article merely sensationalism?  Are there too many outside, uncontrolled factors that would destroy conclusions such as the ones asserted?

First, no matter what you hear, the urban myths, tales from judges, friends, and fellow students, or articles such as the one in the ABA Journal, every bar exam is difficult.  Or, possibly better stated, the hardest bar exam is the one you are taking…  If there was a bar exam that was “easy”, wouldn’t everyone flock to that particular jurisdiction?  If the bar exam was “easy”, wouldn't that particular state have problems with the competency levels of the attorneys that they license?  If the bar exam was “easy”, what would be the point of administering it?  Is it not a tool to protect consumers of legal services?

Next, what if the Washington bar exam is actually the third hardest bar exam in the country?  What does that mean?  Is this a deterrent to future bar takers?  Is this an ominous warning to steer clear of imagining your legal career taking flight in WA?  I hope this is not the case.  Instead, I believe this is simply a result of generalizing.  Comparing WA State’s bar exam, which was an essay only exam, to other state bar exams is like comparing apples to oranges. 

Washington State was an outlier with regard to their testing format.  (Note: WA will administer the UBE for the first time this summer.)  Generalizing bar exam difficulty based on limited quantitative data, even when a regression methodology is employed, could lead to less external validity.  Variables such as the specific testing measures and format, state bar association grading standards, student’s qualitative characteristics, and state bar associations internal set pass rate all affect pass rates; and, thus could skew rankings.  As an Academic Support Professional, I find that a student’s qualitative characteristics and/or psychological factors more strongly influence a student’s ability to pass a bar exam.  Quantitative factors are more easily calculated but are not always predictive.

Bar exams are difficult. Yes, some applicants struggle more with multiple-choice questions than with essay writing.  Other applicants cannot stand the time and attention to detail required to achieve a high score on the performance test.  Some applicants fear arcane legal concepts or nuanced legal theories that are not practical or relevant to their interests.  However, the bottom line is that the bar exam requires extreme focus, months of studying, repetitive practice, and strong internal motivation.  High stakes exams do not get more intense than the bar exam.

Focusing solely on statistics, whether you are a student or a teacher, is the wrong way to approach the bar exam.  Remember, as attorney’s we read between the lines and pay attention to the fine print.  Avoid the hyperbole in articles and blog posts such as the ones mentioned above.  Instead, focus on what it takes to pass the bar...determination and hardwork.

Lisa Young

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2013/05/the-hardest-bar.html

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