UNM: 91 percent of law students pass bar exam on first try - Albuquerque Journal

UNM: 91 percent of law students pass bar exam on first try

Two years ago, 81 percent of University of New Mexico students taking the state bar exam for the first time earned a passing score.

It was a fairly routine outcome for the state’s only law school.

So when UNM’s first-timer pass rate plunged to 71 percent in February 2016 and 68 percent in July 2016 — New Mexico’s first year as part of the Uniform Bar Examination group — UNM administrators felt the urgent need to assess the situation, creating a task force to determine how to improve results.

Officials say the strategy worked: 91 percent of students who took the bar exam for the first time in July passed.

“When we saw those two testings at that significant decline (in 2016), that’s really where we kicked in to say, ‘We’ve got to do whatever we can to get it back up,'” said Sergio Pareja, co-dean of UNM School of Law. “We had a stated goal of getting up to 80 percent by 2018, so we’re obviously pleased.”

UNM started a new course to help prepare students for the bar, identified ways to weave exam-relevant material into other classes and invited bar exam graders to campus for workshops. UNM lent support in other ways, too; Heather Harrigan, assistant dean for student and career services, said the school even helped those in the throes of studying with matters like child care.

“We wanted to remove the barriers to our students effectively preparing for the bar exam,” she said.

Pareja called it an “all-hands-on-deck approach” that included faculty, staff and “friends” of the law school. Bar exam outcomes have an obvious effect on graduates’ career opportunities, and Pareja called them a significant consideration among prospective students.

The New Mexico bar exam underwent some changes in the past few years. New Mexico formally joined the UBE in late 2015, meaning its score now applies in 24 other states, plus the District of Columbia and U.S. Virgin Islands. Joining UBE prompted more rigorous grading on the essay portion of the two-day test, said Sophie Martin, executive director of the New Mexico Board of Bar Examiners. But Martin said New Mexico’s declining performance also reflected a larger trend, as results started dipping annually on the test’s multiple-choice section in 2014.

The multiple-choice scores started improving nationwide this year, with New Mexico making slightly bigger gains than the national average, she said.

The New Mexico Board administered the test to 197 people in July, and 83 percent passed. It had been 64 percent a year earlier.

UNM had 89 students in that pool. That includes 10 people repeating the test, six of whom passed this time. Pareja said UNM welcomed repeat test-takers — even if they were not current students — to participate in many of its test preparation initiatives.

Minority students fared better on the July test than the average of the past six years, Martin said. Seventy-eight percent of Hispanic test-takers passed, as did 56 percent of Native Americans and 67 percent of African Americans.

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