UPDATE: Responding to popular demand, I have attached a sanitized version of the presentation I gave at Florida Coastal last spring here: Download FCSL sanitized I have removed proprietary data, such as information from FCSL's ABA Self-Study, in accordance with a non-disclosure agreement I signed with FCSL. The notes to the slides are not exact quotes from my actual presentation, but accurately reflect the content of my talk, at least up to the point that I was stopped by the President.
Back in April, the night before my my abortive Dean candidate talk at Florida Coastal School of Law, I had dinner with FCSL President Dennis Stone. Over dinner I expressed serious concern over the quality of recently admitted students at FCSL and their prospects for passing the bar. President Stone completely dismissed my concerns. In fact, he expressed great confidence that the school's bar pass rates was going to be just fine, and, even stated that he expected the rate to go up as a result of improvements to the curriculum and in-house bar prep programs.
I was unconvinced. When I expressed a decidedly different view of the school's trajectory the following day, President Stone responded by throwing me off the campus.
Before I departed, I predicted that the school was going to have a disastrous bar result in July. In fact, here is one of the bullets from one of the PowerPoint slides I used during the presentation:
◦ Bar Pass rate for summer 2014 will drop substantially, probably below 60%
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners recently released the July 2014 bar examination results by law school, and, lo and behold, Florida Coastal School of Law had a first-time bar pass rate of 58.0%. This woeful result placed FCSL second to last among Florida’s 12 ABA-Accredited law schools, just edging out perennially struggling Ave Maria.
Although I enjoy being proved right as much as the next guy, I can take no real pleasure in being proved right in this case, for there is a tremendous human toll when such a large school has such a poor result on the bar. There are 118 recent FCSL graduates who are suffering greatly right now because they failed the bar, and that is a tragedy. Indeed, it was precisely this kind of tragedy that I was hoping to avert by trying to persuade FCSL to change course.
How was I able to predict this drop with such accuracy? No magical powers were involved. All I had to do was look at FCSL’s entering student profiles to see that a bar pass rate train wreck was coming.
Although some seem loathe to admit it, there is a very strong correlation between LSAT scores and MBE scores (see, here and here). Let the LSAT scores of your admitted students drop, and three years later, the bar pass rate is bound to follow. Perhaps nowhere is this principle more clearly demonstrated than at FCSL.
Not long ago, FCSL’s bar pass numbers were perfectly respectable. In July 2012, FCSL was at 75.2%, within 5% of the state average of 80.2%. In July 2011, they had similar results: a first time passage rate of 74.6% compared to a 79.5.% state average. These consistent results were not surprising given that the entrance credentials at FCSL for the Fall 2008 and Fall 2009 entering classes were identical (153, 150, 147 at the 75th, 50th and 25th percentile in both years). But starting in 2010, the entrance credentials of FCSL’s students started to slip. That year, they went from 153, 150, 147 to 152, 149, 146, a one-point decrease across the board. As a direct result, in July 2013, FCSL’s July bar pass rate dropped below 70% for the first time in several years. At 67.4%, the 2013 rate was 10% below the state average of 77.2%. In 2011, FCSL dropped their standards even more dramatically, enrolling a class with LSATs of 151, 147, 145. Based on this drop in the aptitude of its entering students, coupled with a significant level of transfer attrition from the top of the class, it was easy to predict that there would be a significant drop in bar performance for FCSL’s July 2014 bar takers.
Unfortunately, the worst is undoubtedly yet to come from FCSL. The entering class of 2012 was substantially weaker by LSAT score (151, 146, 143) than the 2011 entering class, and the 2013 (148, 144, 141) and 2014 (unavailable at this time, but projected to be about the same) entering classes have drastically lower predictors. Unless FCSL substantially increases academic attrition from the bottom of the class, their bar pass rate will almost certainly drop below 50% in the coming years (assuming they stay in business). Even with significantly greater attrition they will still be hard-pressed to match this year’s dismal results.
Will these results finally cause InfiLaw to change their admission policies, and stop admitting huge numbers of high-risk students? One can always hope, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Perhaps the more salient question is: Will these recent results spur the ABA to take any action? The unfortunate answer is: probably not. Under ABA Standard 316(a)(2), a law school that is within 15% of the state average for first-time takers from all ABA law schools is deemed to have a sufficient bar passage rate. So, as far as the ABA is concerned, FCSL, at 14% below the state average, is still fully compliant. (Of course, if you remove FCSL’s students from the equation, the statewide first-time pass rate in Florida on the July bar would have been 73.2%, 15.2% higher than FCSL's average, but that is not how the ABA calculates things.) But even if FCSL is still meeting the ABA’s woefully inadequate bar pass standards now, it should be abundantly clear to anyone who understands the predictive value of LSAT scores that they are not going to be able to meet them in future administrations of the bar. How many more high-risk, poorly qualified students will InfiLaw be allowed to take advantage of before the ABA steps in?
In fairness to InfiLaw, FCSL is far from the only school to experience a drop in their bar passage rate. In fact, this year, Florida’s state average dropped sharply (-5.4%) to 71.8% overall. Florida’s numbers are consistent with what is happening in other states. According to this article, the majority of states to have reported their scores from July 2014 have reported drops of greater than four percentage points, with several reporting a double-digit drops in the first time bar passage rate. These numbers highlight one of the problems with ABA Standard 316(a)(2). When all law schools lower their admission standards, the overall bar pass rate may plummet, but even horribly performing law schools may still be able to stay within 15% of the state average. Florida is a perfect example of this. Florida’s worst-performing school this July, Ave Maria, at 57% (rounded up to the nearest whole percentage point) is still within 15% of Florida’s 72% statewide average, and thus, compliant, even though most people would agree (I hope) that 57% is unacceptably low. This example points to the need for the ABA to implement a minimum first time bar pass rate. Schools that drop below the minimum for a calendar year (combining the February and July bar) should automatically be placed on probation. If 75% is presumptively sufficient under ABA Standard 316 (a)(1), then more than 15% below that, under 60%, should be presumptively insufficient.
I understand very well the pressure on law school administrators to preserve the jobs of law school faculty and staff by trying to limit the decrease in the size of their entering classes by admitting weaker applicants. But it is highly ethically questionable to try to keep a law school afloat on the backs of students who have demonstrated poor aptitude for the study of law. It is even more ethically dubious when a law school is admitting large numbers of extremely high-risk students for the purpose of making a profit. Regrettably, that appears to be exactly what is going on at some ABA-accredited law schools. The ABA should put a stop to it.