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Are Lawyers Getting Dumber?

Are Lawyers Getting Dumber?


lawyers testIn the Aug. 24, 2015 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Natalie Kitroeff discusses the results of the July 2014 bar exam. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) creates and scores the multiple choice part of the test used in all states except Louisiana. Last year, those results dropped the most ever in the exam’s 40-plus year history. Nearly 80 law school deans, mostly representing schools ranking in the bottom half, wrote to NCBE President Erica Moeser asking for an investigation to determine the integrity and fairness of the exam. Ms. Moeser responded that graduates who sat for the exam were less capable than graduates who sat for the 2013 exam and suggested that the deans of those schools review the LSAT scores of students who had entered the schools three years earlier.

Critics aligning with both sides of this issue anxiously await the results of this year’s bar exam administered last month to see if last year’s results were an anomaly or indicate a bigger problem. Law school enrollments have declined to a 30-year low and some less-selective schools have scrambled to fill all available seats that were full as recently as five years ago. Moeser states that the fact that a person earned a J.D. does not mean that they should pass the bar exam if they were underqualified. In fact, most law schools have seen LSAT scores at the 25th percentile drop since 2010, the first year of the current enrollment decline. Moeser’s guess is that scores for the July 2015 exam will drop as well based on the lower average LSAT scores for the 25th percentile of students admitted to law school three years ago.

Approximately 50,000 law school graduates take the bar exam annually. They will receive their results over the next few weeks. If Ms. Moeser’s hunch is correct, another year of lower scores will continue last year’s debate. Assuming that NCBE has not changed its process for developing exam questions, I would argue that she is correct and that schools need to remedy the situation through better bar exam preparation of their students/graduates or by reviewing their admissions policies. Given the recent declines in enrollments experienced by lower-tier law schools, I assume that they’ll continue to argue that the exam is not fair and/or is biased.

Ms. Kitroeff’s article isn’t the first that is critical of law schools. Brian Tamanaha’s book, Failing Law Schools, was eye-opening. Mr. Tamanaha, a law professor and associate dean, wrote that decreasing demand for lawyers was creating a greater likelihood that graduates would be unable to earn enough as a lawyer to repay their average loan balance of $125,000. Tamanaha was particularly critical of accreditation rules and practices by the American Bar Association accrediting body. He also criticized the schools’ pursuit of higher U.S. News & World Report ratings and reported that it led to some inflating their outcomes to achieve better rankings. One of his recommendations was that schools create a lower-cost and more practice-oriented model that might require only two years of school and allow graduates to leave with less debt and able to repay their loans through lower- paying public service legal jobs.

The recent drop in law school applications indicates that prospective students are wary of the cost/benefit of attending. Law school deans seeking to stem the tide of declining enrollments may want to consider some of Mr. Tamanaha’s criticisms, as well as Ms. Moeser’s. Otherwise, the enrollment decline is likely to continue.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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