TaxProf Blog op-ed: Refuting the False Trope on Clinical Courses and Bar Passage, by Robert Kuehn (Associate Dean for Clinical Education, Washington University):
It has been observed that “the fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion.” Until recently, this could be said about the possible influence of enrollment in clinical courses on a student’s likelihood of passing the bar examination. While there was a shortage of empirical studies on any possible relationship, there have been plenty of opinions on how taking those courses might be harmful, opinions often reflected in graduation restrictions on clinical courses and requirements for bar subject-matter courses.
But, there are now significantly more facts to refute those opinions. Two recent, large-scale studies have both found no relationship between the number of law clinic or externship courses or credits a law graduate took and her likelihood of passing the bar exam.
In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Education, academic records of ten years of law school graduates of Washington University in St. Louis and Wayne State University were reviewed for any relationship between the number of law clinic, externship, or, more generally, experiential courses or credits and bar passage. After first accounting for the possible influence of law school grades on bar passage (the most significant predictor of bar success), the study found no correlation at either school between law clinic or externship enrollment and bar passage — no relationship between participation in a law clinic or externship and passage, none between the number of clinical courses and passage, none between the number of clinical credits and passage, and no evidence that students graduating with lower GPAs were disproportionately enrolling in those courses as a way to avoid doctrinal courses (another not uncommon trope). This lack of any relationship was in spite of increased enrollment in experiential courses at both schools over the ten-year period and decreased enrollment in courses teaching material tested on the bar (referred to as bar subject-matter courses).
The article notes that nationwide data on experiential course enrollment and bar passage also belie any claim the two are related. That data indicate that as enrollment in experiential courses was increasing from 2006-2016, bar passage percentages were fairly steady and that the recent decline in passage coincided with decreased, not increased, enrollment in those courses.
A recent study commissioned by the California State Bar found a similar lack of relationship between law clinic and externship courses and bar exam performance. The study reviewed law school coursework and performance on three July exams for over 7,500 bar applicants from eleven California schools. It found no relationship between the number of academic credits from law clinic courses and exam performance, either across all schools or even when reviewing schools separately. Similarly, there was no relationship between the number of externship or internship credits and performance, again when examined across all schools or within schools. The broad range of entering credentials at the eleven schools, and lack of a relationship even within those schools, indicates that the results should be applicable to most law schools, including those with lower LSATs and undergraduate GPAs for entering students.
The study results from Washington University/Wayne State and the California State Bar are similar to smaller studies at Texas Tech and the University of Denver that also reported no statistically significant relationship between enrollment in a law clinic or externship course and bar passage.
The Washington University/Wayne State and California State Bar studies further revealed that opinions about the value of bar subject-matter courses should be moderated. There were small correlations at both schools between the number of bar subject courses and bar passage. But this result (explaining less than 5% of the variability in bar outcomes) was only for low performing students and additional courses showed no marginal benefit once students took the school’s average number of bar courses.
The California State Bar study focused on whether taking a specific course was related to performance on the bar exam topic taught in those courses. It found that neither attendance nor performance in courses covering any of the 13 bar-related topics was related to performance on the corresponding California bar exam or Multistate Bar Exam content covering that subject.
Studies at other schools also indicate that enrollment in bar subject-related courses do not support broad claims about the benefit of taking those courses.
It is time to put away the misinformed trope of participation in law clinic and externship courses harming a student’s chances of passing the bar exam and let the facts do the talking. Law schools should recognize and students should be told they can obtain valuable preparation for the practice of law by enrolling in clinical courses without affecting their likelihood of passing the bar exam.