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New bar exam takes toll on UNM law grads

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Journal Staff Writer

More University of New Mexico law graduates are failing a new national bar exam designed to prove their competence as attorneys – a 13 percentage point drop from last year – and among them is a disproportionate number of minority students and women.

A UNM School of Law administrator said the adoption of a new test, the uniform bar exam now given in about half the states and first used in New Mexico in 2016, accounts for the lower test scores.

But Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, said the new test, which makes it easier to practice in other states that use the exam, isn’t to blame. She noted that UNM has been using topics in the new exam in its courses.

New Mexico adopted the new test in November and started using it this year.

In February, 71 percent of first-time UNM grads taking the exam passed; in July, that number had fallen to 68 percent. That’s a 13 percentage point drop compared with UNM’s July 2015 rate of 81 percent for first-time test takers.

The overall pass rate for everyone taking the bar exam here in July 2016 – including graduates from other law schools – was 64 percent, according to the New Mexico Board of Bar Examiners.

In February 2015, nearly 90 percent of first-time test takers passed the test, as did 80 percent overall. By July 2015, the first-time test-taker rate had fallen to 76 percent, while the overall rate had dropped to 72 percent.

New Mexico’s pass rates are generally in the low 80s.

C. Cunningham/Journal

C. Cunningham/Journal

Howard Thomas, chairman of the New Mexico Board of Bar Examiners, said it’s not clear yet why the pass rate for UNM students dropped so much.

“As always the Board continues to analyze the exam and engage in dialogue with the UNM School of Law and the larger New Mexico legal community,” Thomas said in an email to the Journal .

While UNM does offer assistance with the bar exam, it’s incumbent on students to take private courses to prep for the exam.

The law school acknowledged the dropping test scores in a letter sent to alumni and others associated with the school.

The letter signed by co-deans Sergio Pareja and Alfred Mathewson said staff will analyze the new exam and make changes as needed to get the first-time pass rate to 80 percent by 2018. They also want to develop a strategy to have 85 percent of students pass the bar within 18 months, also by 2018.

When it comes to the new uniform bar exam, the deans’ letter said minority students fared worse than their white counterparts, and men performed better than women. The letter said 14 Native Americans took the test, but none passed.

Michael Platero, the treasurer of the Native American Law Student Association, said news of the Native American pass rate shocked the group.

“As the February bar exam is just months away, we are taking direct action to work with faculty, staff and other student organizations at the University of New Mexico School of Law to develop solutions for current and future students,” Platero wrote in a statement to the Journal .

The Indian law program has long been a point of pride for the UNM law school.

The UNM law school’s co-deans noted in the letter that other states also have lower pass rates since adopting the new exam.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case in Arizona, which adopted the uniform bar exam in 2012. A spokeswoman for the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University said the bar pass rate for its graduates had not significantly changed.

And in Colorado, which adopted the new exam in 2011, the bar pass rate for state graduates didn’t immediately change, according to a law professor at University of Denver Sturm College of Law. In 2012, it was 85 percent, but by 2015 it had dropped to 77 percent.

Focus on fundamentals

Rob Doughty, president of the University of New Mexico Board of Regents, said UNM isn’t the only school struggling with the new bar exam, “but it is evident that we need to refocus on fundamentals.”

“We need to be serving our students better from admissions to graduation,” said Doughty, an attorney who earned his degree at the UNM School of Law.

Denise Chanez and Leon Howard, the chairs of the state bar’s diversity panel, said the recent bar exam results were concerning. They said they are in the process of talking to professional groups for minorities, such as New Mexico Hispanic Bar and the New Mexico Black Lawyers Association, to find the best way to offer support for students.

“Our No. 1 mission is to ensure that the diversity of our profession is moving in the right direction,” Howard said. “We’re waiting to get more information so we can definitely say what the root causes are for these test results.”

Chanez said they’re not trying to intervene with the law school’s purview.

“We’re just trying to figure out a way we can supplement what they’re doing and provide some support as attorneys for students,” she said.

Test changes

In the previous test, New Mexico attorneys wrote three, or half, of the essay questions that focused on state law. The uniform bar exam abandons that material.

Subjects like Indian law and administrative law, common principles in New Mexico, were included but are no longer testable subjects in the uniform bar exam, according to Heather Harrigan, an administrator at the UNM School of Law.

The challenge is preparing law school students to practice in the state while addressing legal principles that are not as applicable here as they might be elsewhere.

“We need to remember New Mexico is unique in many ways,” Harrigan said. “We’re going to have to find that balance.”