Robert Kuehn (Associate Dean for Clinical Education, Washington University), Whither Clinical Courses and Bar Passage:
Bar examination passage rates are down again in many states. ... In response to the declines, some blame an easy scapegoat — too many electives (especially experiential courses) and too few bar-tested courses. While limiting experiential or clinical courses or credits or mandating more bar courses presents an easy way of appearing to do something, there is no available evidence that students who take more experiential or clinical courses do worse on the bar exam, and only a limited, weak positive correlation between bar courses and bar exam success.
Fueling this finger pointing against experiential courses was a comment from the president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) on factors that could explain the decline in bar passage percentages: “In addition, the rise of experiential learning may have crowded out time for students to take additional ‘black-letter’ courses that would have strengthened their knowledge of the law and their synthesis of what they learned during the first year.” She suggested another factor could be that schools are requiring fewer bar courses, “thereby permitting students to miss (or avoid) core subjects that will appear on the bar exam.” A possible connection between clinical courses and declining bar scores was also later raised by the NCBE’s director of testing and research.
Unfortunately for the debate over the causes of bar exam failure and what schools might do to address the problem, these statements were made without reference to any supporting evidence. Indeed, none exists. In response to my inquiry whether there was any empirical basis for asserting that students with more experiential coursework perform, on average, worse on the bar exam or that taking more bar courses will increase a student’s chances of success, the NCBE president replied that she was unaware of any research but would check with her testing staff. A follow up six months later confirmed there still was no supporting study to share.
I too am unaware of any published study examining the relationship between experiential or clinical coursework and bar passage. ... Studies do consistently find that law school grades and LSAT scores have the strongest relationship to bar exam success.
Regarding a relationship between enrollment in bar courses and bar passage, published studies show no, or a small, positive relationship, but only for a narrow range of students. ... [W]hile some authors claim, without empirical support, that bar courses will improve a student odds of passing the exam, and while schools continue to advise their students that the key to bar success is enrollment in bar courses, published studies do not support those claims.
But, all is not lost. Statistical analysis of bar performance at a number of schools has found that specially designed academic support and bar passage programs can improve passage rates, especially for students who have not performed well in law school. ... Of course these programs require a much greater commitment of a school’s resource than simply piling more bar courses on at-risk students. Yet, irresponsibly scapegoating experiential courses for bar failure or forcing students to take more upper-class bar courses as a purported solution is, as the authors of the most respected study warned, “overly simplistic” and “will not solve the bar examination failure problem.