How to Assess Law School Bar Passage Rates When Choosing a School

If you want a license to practice law in the U.S., you typically need to pass the bar exam of whatever jurisdiction you plan to work in.

However, there are some exceptions. In rare cases, a jurisdiction may grant diploma privilege to alumni of a particular law school, so graduates of that school wouldn’t need to pass a bar exam to work as an attorney and represent legal clients within that jurisdiction.

For instance, the state of Wisconsin waives the bar exam requirement that typically applies to aspiring attorneys there if someone receives a law degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison or Marquette University, though alumni of those schools are still required to obtain character and fitness certification. Also, in 2020 after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, five other jurisdictions temporarily offered diploma privileges to law school grads due to the public health emergency.

Because bar exam passage is mandatory for most legal jobs, law school hopefuls should compare pass rates for recent graduates at various J.D. programs, according to legal education experts.

[Read: What Law School Applicants Should Know About the Bar Exam.]

The American Bar Association, or ABA, uses bar pass rates to assess the quality of law schools and determine whether those schools are worthy of accreditation. On its website, the ABA contends that “how a law school’s graduates perform on the bar examination is likely the single best outcome measure to consider” when evaluating the quality of that school. The ABA suggests that this data point is crucial for prospective law students to evaluate when determining where they should study.

When evaluating bar pass rates at different law schools, future lawyers should understand that some states — such as California and Florida — have notoriously difficult bar exams, which means that law schools within those states may have lower pass rates than schools outside those states despite offering courses of comparable quality.

Another factor to consider, experts say, is that extremely selective law schools tend to enroll students with stellar scores on either the Law School Admission Test or the Graduate Record Examinations General Test, and those students tend to be skilled test-takers who are inclined to perform well on nearly any standardized test, including a bar exam.

[READ: How to Become a Lawyer: A Step-by-Step Guide.]

Nevertheless, the fact that someone excels on a law school entrance exam does not necessarily mean that person will pass a bar exam on their first try, since the knowledge and abilities assessed on these types of tests are different, experts warn.

Differences Between the LSAT and the Bar Exam

The LSAT, which has a minimum score of 120 and a maximum score of 180 and lasts about three hours, is designed to assess whether a potential law student is academically prepared for law school and whether he or she has the logical, analytical and reading comprehension skills necessary to perform well in legal courses. In contrast, a bar exam is meant to ensure that a law school graduate has sufficient legal training and understanding to be a competent attorney. It usually is completed in two days and includes questions about cornerstone areas of law, including constitutional, contract and criminal law.

Illinois-based attorney Terra Gross — founder of the Attuned Legal, LLC law firm — noted in an email that the LSAT is designed to be “taken before the student is attending law school, quite possibly before the test-taker has had any exposure to legal reasoning and writing. By comparison, the bar exam passage rate reflects how students perform on a law-related test after being thoroughly saturated in legal reasoning and analysis during law school. This result is likely more closely connected to the students’ law school experience than their LSAT scores, even though many law students still have to invest in private bar study courses.”

Some law schools have bar pass rates that are either much higher or much lower than one might expect given the caliber of the median LSAT score among their entering students and their typical attrition and transfer rates. Experts say this is because some schools provide valuable academic support to students preparing for the bar, while others do not give adequate assistance.

Amit Schlesinger, executive director of legal programs at Kaplan, notes that the nation’s most prestigious law schools tend to have both exceptional average LSAT scores and extraordinary bar pass rates.

Schlesinger says, however, that there are “outliers” — schools where incoming students tend to have modest LSAT scores but whose graduates pass the bar at a rate well above average. “They end up outperforming predictors,” he says, calling the phenomenon a very positive sign about the quality of education at those J.D. programs.

Here is a list of the 10 ranked law schools in the 2022 U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings whose first-time bar exam pass rates exceeded the average by the greatest margin within the jurisdiction where their graduates most frequently took the bar. This list excludes Wisconsin law schools whose graduates are given diploma privilege and treated as if they had passed the bar exam.

Law school (name) (state) Median LSAT score for all 2020 entrants 2019 bar passage rate for first-time test-takers (state) Overall bar passage rate in that state How much better grads did than state bar passage rate U.S. News rank
Stanford University (CA) 171 92.4% (CA) 59.5% 55.3% 2
University of California–Berkeley 168 88.7% (CA) 59.5% 49.1% 9
University of California–Los Angeles 169 87.5% (CA) 59.5% 47.1% 14
University of Southern California 167 86.6% (CA) 59.5% 45.5% 19
University of California–Davis 163 85.3% (CA) 59.5% 43.4% 35 (tie)
Pepperdine University (CA) 162 81% (CA) 59.5% 36.1% 46 (tie)
University of Virginia 170 100% (NY) 73.5% 36.1% 8
University of California–Irvine 166 80.6% (CA) 59.5% 35.5% 35 (tie)
University of Pennsylvania (Carey) 170 99.2% (NY) 73.5% 35.0% 6 (tie)
Harvard University (MA) 173 98.9% (NY) 73.5% 34.6% 3

Alumni of Stanford Law School, which boasted an impressive median LSAT score of 171, beat their state average bar exam results by the greatest amount compared to all other ranked law schools that reported those figures, achieving a bar pass rate 55.3% higher than the norm within the state of California.

[See: What Law Schools Have the Best First-Time Bar Pass Rate?]

Legal education experts warn that attending a top law school does not guarantee passing the bar on a first attempt. While a school entrance test such as the LSAT assesses a person’s readiness for learning, a professional licensing exam like the bar measures theoretical expertise and practical skills that are most essential for the desired career.

Law students who attend a J.D. program where their LSAT score is significantly higher than the norm may have an easier time passing the bar than their classmates, but students whose score is below average at their school should understand that the bar exam may be harder for them than it is for their peers, Schlesinger warns.

Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.

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How to Assess Law School Bar Passage Rates When Choosing a School originally appeared on usnews.com

Correction 09/08/21: A previous version of this article misstated how Stanford Law School graduates performed on the bar compared with California’s overall bar passage rate.

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