Paul L. Caron

Monday, November 27, 2017

Toledo Aims To Boost Bar Passage, Job Placement, Enrollment: 'Once You Take The Bar For Granted, It Will Bite You In The Butt'

Toledo LogoThe Blade, UT Aims to Boost Law School Performance:

As the University of Toledo continues to sit in the bottom half of Ohio’s nine law schools, administrators have watched two accredited law schools shutter [Charlotte, Whittier] and a third [Valparaiso] announce it will stop admitting new students. ... “It’s been a tough seven years for law schools nationwide,” said Ben Barros, dean of UT’s College of Law.

The numbers show the past decade has been a difficult one for UT’s College of Law.

The rate at which UT graduates pass the July bar exam on their first try fell from a high of 90 percent in 2008 to a dismal 63 percent in 2016, and the overall pass-rate mirrored the trend, slipping from 85 percent to 59 percent during the same period.

Enrollment also plummeted, from 496 in 2008 to just 228 in 2016. ...

Mr. Barros, who took over as dean in 2015, is working to prevent UT from becoming the next law school to face closure. He is pushing for higher enrollment by offering scholarships while simultaneously raising admission requirements. He has also implemented programs to help lower performing students prepare for the bar exam.

And 2017 already shows improvement: The first-time passage rate jumped 11 percentage points — from 63 percent last year to 74 percent in July 2017 — and enrollment saw its first increase in years, from 228 to 247.

But UT is still a long way from the days of 90 percent bar passage rates.

“Once you take the bar for granted, it will come up and bite you in the butt,” Mr. Barros said. “That’s what happened with us. We were doing really well, and we took it for granted, and it takes a couple years to get your program back together again.” ...

The average overall student debt for a UT law student this year is $81,626, Mr. Barros said. That’s down from an average of $99,000 in 2013, and much of that can be attributed to an increase in scholarships as law schools compete to attract students from a smaller pool of applicants. ...

But enticing students to apply in the first place relies on high bar passage rates and strong post-graduation employment numbers. American Bar Association data shows just 36 percent of UT’s class of 2016 were employed 10 months after graduation in full-time jobs that required them to pass the bar. ...

Even as UT saw its first-time bar passage rate improve and enrollment tick up this year, leaders acknowledge they need to do better.

UT President Sharon Gaber has made growing the university’s academic rankings and boosting its overall reputation a priority, and she said she wants to give Mr. Barros the chance to route the law school back in the right direction.

“If we continue to see enrollment and bar passage rate not make improvement, we’ll look at that, because I continue to look at everything that we’re doing,” Ms. Gaber said. “The all-time [bar] passage rate, that wasn’t a great rate. Yet I know that Dean Barros has said we’re going to keep making progress and work on that and improve.” ...

In the last two years, Mr. Barros has implemented new initiatives to combat the low bar passage rates, both for first-time test takers and for those who take it multiple times, and he’s hopeful the improvements will translate to more graduates finding better employment. ...

Most law school graduates enroll in private bar preparation courses between the time they graduate in May to when they sit for the exam in July. Graduates who don’t complete those classes typically don’t do as well on the exams as those who do, so the college added a new third-year course to help students prepare for the exam before they graduate.

“You can’t not do it,” legal writing professor Lesa Byrnes said. “There’s too much at stake.”

Ms. Byrnes also serves as the college’s director of bar preparation and academic success, a position Mr. Barros created to help track students who need academic help. She teaches a workshop for students in their first semester to learn how to better study, write outlines, and take exams.

She also instituted a rule that any student with a 2.7 GPA or below must meet with her and develop a plan to raise their grades before they’re allowed to register for their next semester of classes. It ensures students enroll in courses they’ll be tested on when they take the bar exam, rather than settling for easier electives, she said.

“It also gives me the opportunity for face-to-face time with them, and I really have developed relationships with these students,” Ms. Byrnes said.

The law school is also increasing support for graduates. Each student is now paired with a faculty mentor in the 12 weeks between when they graduate and when they sit for the bar exam, who pushes them to complete a bar preparation course.

Mr. Barros is hopeful that providing academic support for students from their first semester, through their third year, and after graduation will help move the needle. But he said being more selective on students who are admitted to the program needs to happen as well. He’d like to see all incoming students score a 150 on their LSAT, because students who score below that threshold typically have a harder time passing the bar, he said.

That being said, he’d also like to see enrollment grow from the latest entering class of 92 to an average entering class of 120 to keep the law school a financially healthy arm of the university. ...

President Gaber stressed the importance of being a “comprehensive research university,” and a robust law school is part of that mission.

“Each one of these things is a piece in the puzzle,” Mr. Barros said. “If we do 20 different things all better, that’s where we’ll start seeing the results.”

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