Michigan Bar Exam Essay Curve

We’re now in year two of the Michigan “let’s make the bar exam more difficult” plan. In 2012, the Michigan Board of Law Examiners changed the weight it gives to the essay questions, with the goal of producing lawyers with a better understanding of state law. I don’t know, there are probably all sorts of things that don’t apply to automakers in Michigan that you’d never see on the Multistate section.

This makes the bar more difficult and more stupid at the same time. It’s harder to answer an essay question than a multiple choice event where you can make an educated guess, but it’s also dumber to administer a “standardized” test that relies heavily on the individual tastes of essay graders.

In any event, the results from the July 2012 bar exam were predictably horrific. Only 55% of test takers passed the July 2012 test. Cooley totally embarrassed itself, even by Cooley standards, with only 42% of test takers from that school passing.

This year, 60% of test takers passed the July 2013 Michigan Bar. So that’s better, though still pretty rough. Cooley, again, covered itself in glory by posting a 43% pass rate. But all the law schools have complained about Michigan’s new, harder exam.

And the Michigan BOLE doesn’t care. Law schools in Michigan better raise their game, because the game ain’t changing….

Here’s the full school breakdown for the Michigan July 2013 bar:

Jesus. Just for fun, if you remove Cooley and Detroit Mercy from the data set, the pass rate among test takers from Michigan law schools jumps to over 70%. So… “the bar is too hard thing” isn’t really a problem for everybody in Michigan. The University of Michigan seems to be doing just fine with the new scoring.

And that’s ironic, because students at the University of Michigan, even if they stay in-state and take their home bar, are the ones least likely to be drowning in the kind of local minutiae that the Michigan BOLE seems to regard as important. As our flyover country freelancer explains, a state like Michigan is sure to have big corporate clients who need to be serviced with a generalist’s flair as anywhere else. So I’m not really sure what going out of your way to localize the exam is really accomplishing.

Of course, any law that takes place west of the Hudson doesn’t seem to accomplish very much to me. The Michigan Board of Law Examiners defended itself in an email to Michigan Lawyers Weekly:

There was dialogue between the BLE and the law schools last spring and into the summer. Justice [Brian K.] Zahra heard and responded to the law schools’ concerns. He also made it clear that scaling was eliminated for the protection of the public, and that, for that reason, the BLE would not return to scaling the exam. The BLE continues its efforts to ensure that the public is protected, through the fair administration of an examination that tests for minimum knowledge of Michigan law

I’d disagree, but again, the University of Michigan seems to be able to do it. If there’s one school that’s going to focus on “national” and “theoretical” aspects of law instead of on the ground, local practice issues, it’s the University of Michigan. And yet, students there do okay. If you are Detroit Mercy, graduating students who have little chance at out-of-state job prospects, how are you barely getting half of your students to pass the state bar?

I’m just saying that maybe it’s not the bar that is “too hard.” Maybe it’s that the bar to get into law school is too low?

Bar exam changes set, law schools still unhappy [Michigan Lawyers Weekly]

Earlier: Test Takers Tank On The July 2012 Michigan Bar Exam

“Far as draft picks, my name did not get called / Bet before I go I put a billion on the board.” — Jay Z

You just sat and took the bar exam this week. Now the grueling few months of waiting begins. I recently sat in your chair and walked in your shoes. Yesterday, a friend texted me after her third and final day of the bar exam: “Is it normal to feel like I failed the MBE???”

I let her know this was completely normal. Heck, I wanted to puke with anxiety after the third and final day of testing.

Last February, the National Conference of Bar Examiners changed the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), the 200 multiple-choice section, by raising the number of experimental questions from 10 to 25. As with many other things related to the bar nowadays, we have no idea of the reason for the change or whether it has contributed to an even higher failure rate. As ATL editor Staci Zaretsky wrote:

Just when we thought that bar exam performance couldn’t get any worse, lo and behold, the national mean MBE scaled score from the February 2017 has reared its ugly head. Last year, the national mean MBE scaled score from the February bar exam was 135, a 33-year low. This year, that same score is 134, which is the lowest in the history of aggregated MBE results….

While it’s true that the February 2017 exam had a slightly different format — there were 25 experimental questions, rather than the standard 10, meaning that 175 questions were scaled into test takers’ scores instead of 190 — the difference in scores was expected to be negligible.

Last February, more than half of the people who sat for the Texas Bar Exam failed it (51% failure rate) . Even more failed in New York (56% failure rate). Worse yet for Arizona (59% failure rate). Meanwhile, in California, almost two-thirds who finished the California Bar Exam failed it. The results are absolutely abysmal, which has led many people to seek accountability. After all, the system is literally failing its students.

Earlier this week, ATL columnist Lawprofblawg asked, “Who’s to blame?”:

Is it the law schools who admit anyone with a pulse? Is it the bar examiners, who are constricting access to bar admission?  Is it the bar prep courses? Why do we even have this thing in the first place?

As reported by Zaretsky, at least in California, it is clear that the bar examiners and their extremely high MBE cut score were culprits in the state’s low bar passage rate:

As it stands, California’s required passing score of 144 is higher than that of 48 other states, with only Delaware’s cut score being higher. For decades, California’s bar exam has been referred to as the hardest in the country, but year in and year out, data has revealed that to be untrue.

With the state’s mean scaled MBE scores continuing to be higher than the national average, it seems that California’s bar exam is simply the most difficult to pass thanks to its arbitrarily high cut score.

In a few months, the results will be released, and the abysmal data will become painstakingly real for a critical mass of you as test takers. With societal expectations, as well as your own, some of you will treat the bar exam results as life or death. As Mel Brooks famously quipped, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

But it is important that you have some perspective. You’ve made it through the grueling process of law school. Now you have to jump through one more hoop to become an attorney. Since its inception, the bar has been through several iterations. So while some older lawyers may have no empathy for recent test takers, my position tends to be a little more nuanced.

Take Michigan’s Bar Exam, for example. In the last decade, if a test taker scored high enough on the MBE, the Michigan State Board of Law Examiners did not grade the essays. In other words, you could pass Michigan’s bar exam simply by doing well on the multiple-choice section.

Then sometime around 2010, the examiners started grading the essay portions as well, no matter how you did on the MBE. Then in 2012, without an explanation or reasonable notice, they re-weighted the exam to make essays count for 50% of the exam. Lo and behold, scores plummeted (and ATL was there to document the carnage). In 2014, the examiners re-weighted the essay portion yet again.

In those three years, the overall passage rate in Michigan precipitously dropped from 80% to 58%, a 22-point decline—from 80% in 2010, to 76% in 2011, to 58% in 2012. Did law students’ aptitude or LSAT scores plummet by that much in three years? No. Yet, the continuing narrative has been how much dumber law students have become. Clearly, the issue in falling test scores is much more nuanced.

When I beat myself up over missed questions in my post-bar mental state (which I don’t recommend by the way!), I often read about others who used their initial failure as a stepping stone, rather than a road block, from sources such as ATL, Buzzfeed, and The Wall Street Journal. The list is long and distinguished, and includes such famous names as John F. Kennedy Jr., Benjamin Cardozo, and FDR.

If you need more reading therapy to soothe you during your few months of purgatory, then you can seek refuge in the words of Rudyard Kipling:


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man [or Woman], my son [or daughter]!

Finally, be sure to remember: worrying is like a rocking chair, sure it gives you something to do, but it never gets you anywhere. So do your best to put the bar exam in the back of your mind. Don’t beat yourself up over questions you could’ve answered better.

You have one last hoop to jump through to become a lawyer. Having to retake an exam isn’t the end of the world.

Now go back out in the world and enjoy civilization!

Renwei Chung is the Diversity Columnist at Above the Law. You can contact Renwei by email at projectrenwei@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter (@renweichung), or connect with him on LinkedIn.


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