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Bar News - June 17, 2015

NH Bucks National Bar Exam Trends


UBE Adoption Likely a Factor

Despite a nearly 20 percent decrease in the pass rate for the February bar exam in New Hampshire between 2014 and 2015, the Granite State overall seems to be bucking the national trends of declining bar exam results and fewer test-takers.

Pass rates for the July bar exam – generally deemed a more reliable performance measure due to the larger, more consistent and traditional population of test-takers – improved in New Hampshire from 76.9 percent in 2013 to 83.2 percent in 2014. It was one of only a handful of jurisdictions to see an improvement.

“There was a national trend of declining scores in the 2014 bar exam, and New Hampshire was contrary to that trend,” says Gordon MacDonald, chair of the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners. “Year over year, our pass rate went up.”

In 2013, the pass rate for the February exam was roughly the same as it was this year – about 56 percent – so the significant dip this year, after a 75 percent pass rate in 2014, does not appear to be indicative of a steady decline. MacDonald, a lawyer at Nixon Peabody who has been a member of the NH Board of Bar Examiners since 2003 and chair since 2010, said pass rates for the February exam tend to bounce around, as those who take the test in February often come from other states or are retaking the exam after a first attempt the previous July.

In many other jurisdictions, news about slipping scores and pass rates for the July bar exam has made it onto newspaper front pages, but in New Hampshire, the rates have held steady. In 2010, the pass rate for the July bar exam was 82 percent. In 2011, it was 76.6 percent. In 2012, 2013, and 2014, it was 86 percent, 76.9 percent and 83.2 percent, respectively, according to MacDonald. “We’ve been very consistently within a zone of 76 and 86 percent for the last five years,” he says.

Nationally, the average scaled score on the July 2014 Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) fell to the lowest level since 2004, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The unexpected drop prompted an extensive evaluation of the exam itself before results were released, according to a December 2014 article by NCBE President Erica Moeser.

“Because we realized the implications of such a drop, we pursued a process of replicating and reconfirming the mathematical results by having several psychometricians work independently to re-equate the test,” she wrote in an article for the Bar Examiner. “… All of our efforts to date have confirmed the correctness of the scaled scores as calculated and reported.”

In addition to the scaled MBE scores in New Hampshire, the number of people signed up to take the July bar exam here has increased, from 166 last year to 174 who will sit for the two-day test next month, an increase that also seems to run contrary to a national trend, amidst declining law school applications and enrollments.

MacDonald theorizes that New Hampshire’s adoption last year of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) drew a higher number of test-takers from out of state to sit for the bar exam in New Hampshire, the only state in New England to offer the multistate UBE. This trend might continue, he says, as New York recently announced plans to adopt the UBE next year.

“The UBE gives applicants much greater options in terms of mobility and, as of now, UBE applicants have the option of seeking admission in 15 other jurisdictions,” MacDonald says. “As of next July, New York will be added to the list of UBE jurisdictions, thus greatly expanding mobility, given the importance of New York to the legal market. We think that having been the only UBE jurisdiction in the Northeast has led to a greater number of people seeking to take the exam in New Hampshire, and we’re happy that New York has followed our lead in adopting the UBE.”

It’s well known that law schools across the country have been struggling with declining applications and enrollment figures that last fall were down more than 30 percent since 2000, according to the American Bar Association. For some of these law schools, these changes in the market are accompanied by a decline in the average LSAT score for admitted students, but New Hampshire again seems to be bucking the trend.

According to data released by the National Conference of Bar Examiners showing the average LSAT scores among the lowest 25th percentile of first-year law students at law schools across the country, the majority of law schools have seen those averages slide by a few points over the past few years. But the University of New Hampshire School of Law, the state’s only law school, is part of a minority of law schools that have seen a slight increase over the past few years.

MacDonald, who also serves on the NCBE board of trustees, says the state’s adoption of the UBE may have again played a role, as out-of-state test-takers may have improved New Hampshire’s applicant pool overall. But statistics from the NCBE also show that UNH Law decreased its class size by 42 percent over the same period. Many law schools kept class sizes the same or saw a less significant reduction, while presumably digging deeper into the applicant pool to admit new students.

MacDonald says it makes sense that New Hampshire is seeing bar exam results that don’t conform with national trends.

“New Hampshire has long been a leader nationally in adopting innovations with respect to bar admissions, and our chief justice, Linda Dalianis, is recognized in a leader in this area,” he says. “She strongly supported New Hampshire’s early adoption of the UBE because of the mobility it gives young lawyers.”

Dalianis also conceived and championed UNH Law’s Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program, an experiential learning program that serves as an alternative to the traditional bar exam for admission to the New Hampshire bar.

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