Thursday, September 26, 2019
Common wisdom often suggests more is better...at least when it comes to passing the bar exam. But, just like more medicine is not always better for one's body (and even poisonous when taking too much), perhaps undertaking more bar-tested subjects as a law student is not associated with increasing bar passage results, at least for those most at-risk of not passing the bar exam. And, perhaps avoiding experiential learning courses is not necessary for students most at-risk of not passing the bar exam. Indeed, the latest forthcoming empirical research is all about exploring common conceptions about the relationships among experiential learning, taking bar-tested electives, and bar exam outcomes.
To evaluate these questions, we turn to two empiricist law professors - Robert Kuehn at Washington University and David Moss at Wayne State University - who have just released "must-read" research analyzing often-expressed narratives about the impacts of experiential learning and bar-tested elective courses on bar exam outcomes. Robert Kuehn and David Moss, A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes, 68 J. Legal Educ. (2019) (forthcoming).
First, the authors evaluate the hypothesis that law students should refrain from taking too many experiential learning courses (such as clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), most likely based on the belief that experiential learning crowds out doctrinal learning.
Second, the researchers evaluate the hypothesis that law students should take more bar-tested subjects rather than fewer to boost ones' promise of bar exam success, particularly for those most at-risk of not passing bar exams.
Their research is robust, using regression analysis to evaluate such variables as LSAT scores, UGPA, first-year LGPA, graduating LGPA, experiential learning courses (clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), and bar-tested elective subjects [regression analysis allows researchers to control or take into account the influence of other variables in order to observe whether experiential learning credits and/or bar-tested course work are associated with improved bar exam outcomes].
As indicated in their republished table below, their research spans an impressive 10 year time span, examining first-time bar exam results, for 3891 law school graduates from Washington University and Wayne State University.
Given the depth and breadth of the professors' research, their findings provide food-for-thought for these two questions, at least based on their law school populations, as to whether law students most-at risk of bar failure based on LGPA should take fewer experiential learning courses and/or more bar-tested elective subjects.
As an initial observation, with respect to LSAT scores, both law schools observed relatively consistent LSAT means throughout the course of the ten-year period despite a general downward trend in bar passage rates beginning in or around 2013 and 2014. Consequently, at least based on their law school populations, bar exam declines appear to be unrelated to LSAT admission decisions since LSAT scores remained relatively flat throughout the ten-year research period.
With respect to experiential learning courses, the authors observe that both law schools have seen astounding increases in the number of experiential credits hours that their students are taking over the ten year period, which is not surprising given the American Bar Association's 2014 requirement mandating increased experiential learning requirements in order for law schools to satisfy more recent accreditation standards.
Nevertheless, despite the occasional claim suggesting that law students are taking too many experiential courses, which might compromise bar exam results, the researchers found that there was no statistical association between increases in experiential learning credits hours and bar exam performance (to include those students most at-risk of bar exam failure). Thus, the authors suggest that law schools should not counsel students to avoid experiential learning opportunities.
With respect to bar-tested elective subjects, the authors observed that both law schools have found that more recent bar takers are taking fewer bar-tested subjects than in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found a modest correlation between taking bar-tested subjects and bar exam outcomes but only for those students with LGPA's that placed them most at-risk of bar exam failure.
However, critically, the authors observed that that was an apparent sweet spot in the number of bar-tested subjects taken by at-risk students such that there was no statistical benefit in at-risk students taking more than the approximate average number of bar-tested subjects at each school (just four electives out of fourteen bar-tested subjects for Washington University students and just seven electives out of nineteen bar-tested subjects for Wayne State students).
In other words, in my reading of their research based on their populations of bar exam takers, law schools might counsel at-risk students to take a handful or so of bar-tested subjects but also advise them that they need not take the entire panoply of bar-tested elective subjects (as more than the average has no empirical benefit of improving bar exam outcomes). And, we should not at all fear encouraging at-risk students from actively participating in experiential learning courses, whether in the form of clinics, internships, and/or simulation courses.
In short, there's much room for curricular exploration by at-risk students without compromising their bar exam outcomes...and that's good news worth thinking about as we meet with our students about their curriculum choices.