By: Tori Watson
The end of 8 A.M. lectures and late night cram sessions may be in sight, but any third-year law student will tell you that one of the most daunting challenges of their law school career still lies ahead: the bar exam. This intense examination is administered each year to determine whether an attorney is competent to practice law in a particular state. With preparation spanning anywhere from weeks to months, the bar exam is unsurprisingly a significant source of stress among law students and recent graduates. The good news? Historically, LSU Law graduates have led the pack when it comes to success on Louisiana’s challenging bar exam. This July, LSU Law once again topped the charts on the 2016 Louisiana Bar Exam, with a 77.86% pass rate among all graduates taking the test, and an 81% pass rate among first-time test takers. This begs the questions, what is LSU doing right and what might other Louisiana law schools be missing?
“I feel like it must be related to curriculum, at some level,” remarks Melissa Lonegrass, a professor of civil law studies at LSU Law. Lonegrass, who graduated first in her class at Tulane in 2005, has been heavily involved with bar exam preparation over the years. Since 2009, she has been LSU Law’s designee to the Advisory Committee to the Louisiana Committee on Bar Admissions. She was also a member of the Louisiana Bar Association’s Special Committee to Review Proposed Changes to the Louisiana Bar Exam in 2011. She believes that the LSU advantage may lie in its civil law-focused curriculum. “Tulane is a higher ranked school than us, and their credentials, on average, are a little higher. If all that mattered were credentials, their passage rate would probably be higher than ours.”
LSU Law’s curriculum is certainly unique. All first-year law students are required to take civil law classes such as Civil Law Property, Obligations, and Western Legal Traditions. This is distinct from schools such as Tulane and Loyola, where first year students may choose a common law curriculum over a civil-law-focused, Louisiana-specific track. A common law based curriculum is attractive to many students who plan to practice outside of Louisiana. Unfortunately, such aspirations do not always go according to plan.
“We call them ‘late-switchers’,” explains Lonegrass. “Students are sometimes unable to find out-of-state employment, or end up falling in love with New Orleans and decide in their third year that they want to stay.”
By that time, it is often too late to take the civil law courses required to adequately prepare for Louisiana’s tough, civil-law focused bar exam.
One might argue that this is exactly the purpose of bar exam preparation courses such as BARBRI or Kaplan: to fill in any remaining gaps in legal knowledge left after law school. However, a recent study has shown that choice of bar review course did not significantly affect performance on the bar exam. The same study also revealed that exam success is correlated with law school GPA, rather than performance on prior tests such as the LSAT. 1 These results suggest that the bar exam favors strong legal analysis skills developed over the course of a law school career, rather than rigorous memorization in the weeks leading up to the test.
These findings carry some surprising implications. For LSU Law students, this could mean that your Western Legal Traditions class is even more beneficial than your BARBRI preparation course. While LSU Law’s curriculum includes mandatory civil law courses, is does not require a third year bar preparation class, as other Louisiana law schools often do. Professor Lonegrass thinks this gives students an advantage. “There’s something methodological happening in those civil law courses, in addition to learning substantive law, that makes you a better thinker.” She believes the relevance of the civil law extends even beyond the realm of the Louisiana bar exam and helps students become better lawyers altogether. “Exposing students to comparative and international law is fundamental to practicing law anywhere in the country. Exposure to the law and legal systems of jurisdictions outside the common law United States, I would argue, is relevant to everyone.”
Mahogane Reed, who graduated from LSU Law this past May, was among the first-time test takers who passed the bar this July. Looking back, she found that much of her preparation came from the choice of material covered in her law school classes. “Students are exposed to bar exam topics throughout their time at the Law Center and are not blindsided when it’s time to begin studying for the exam,” she notes.
To Reed, what stands out is the commitment of her professors to teach bar-tested material, and their ability to teach it well.
“The advantage for LSU Law students comes into play when professors convey this information in the classroom, emphasize these areas of the law during classroom instruction, and test on these specific topics in the same form one would expect to see on the bar exam.”
As graduation draws nearer, LSU Law students can take comfort in knowing their legal education has prepared them to tackle the challenges of the bar exam and beyond. So the next time you find yourself wondering why you have spent so many hours distinguishing corpus and animus, or how a Frenchman’s recipe for legal gumbo might impact your career, remember that it just might pay off.