Preparation and Innovative Teaching Methods Produce Stellar Bar Passage Results

Despite pandemic-related challenges and delays, a novel bar exam format and unusual testing conditions, and delays in exam administration, UC Hastings Law graduates posted an overall first-time pass rate of 86% on the October 2020 California Bar Exam, the highest pass rate for Hastings graduates in more than a decade. The first-time pass rate for the Class of 2020 graduates was even higher – 87%.

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Chancellor and Dean David Faigman noted that the October 2020 pass rate continues a multi-year trend of dramatically improved bar exam outcomes for UC Hastings graduates, beating the July 2019 first-time pass rate of 80%, which itself was 20 points higher than the prior year. Dean Faigman thanked Academic Dean Morris Ratner, Associate Dean Stefano Moscato, Director of Bar Passage Support Margaret Greer, the faculty, the Office for Academic Skills Instruction & Support (OASIS) team, the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP), our outstanding team of essay tutors, and the many staff members and alumni who supported graduates through a very difficult bar study period.

“We are so proud of the hard work that our graduates put into their bar studies, no doubt the primary reason for their success,” Faigman said. “The whole community has come together to achieve what has become a remarkable trajectory of improved bar outcomes over the past few years.”

Academic Dean Ratner, one of the architects of the College’s bar passage success strategy, tied the sustained increase in test scores to several factors, including innovative teaching methods the faculty adopted starting in Fall 2016. Incoming students are now provided a common baseline of legal analysis skills in their first year, which is reinforced throughout the JD program, he said.

Ratner also highlighted Dean Faigman’s leading role in convincing the California Supreme Court to lower the exam cut score, which remains second highest in the country, but, as of the October 2020 exam, at 139 is now closer to the national median cut score of 135. “The fact that California’s cut score is better aligned with peer states means that access to the profession is now more equitable and that the California legal services market and legal education system will be more attractive to aspiring and new lawyers in coming years,” Ratner said. “That’s a win for the State and for our graduates.”

The College’s bar success programming has led to improved outcomes for all cohorts of students. Nearly all (98%) Class of 2020 graduates in the top half of the class by law school GPA passed the October 2020 exam. But students across the academic success spectrum showed the strength and determination to overcome the challenge posed by the bar exam. “We were so pleased and proud to see the sheer number of graduates who overcame academic difficulties early in their law school journey, continued the methodical process of climbing the hill, and ultimately planted their flag as successful first-time bar passers,” Associate Dean Stefano Moscato added.

Bar outcomes over the past several years have been particularly impressive for students admitted through and part of the Legal Education Opportunity Program under the leadership of LEOP Director and UC Hastings alumna Elizabeth McGriff (’96). UC Hastings created LEOP more than 50 years ago to create a bridge to professional life for students who have overcome significant adversity. “We give our LEOP students the tools they need to succeed in law school, on the bar exam, and in practice,” McGriff said. “We believe in our students and we teach them to believe in themselves.”

Director of Bar Passage Support Margaret Greer has played a leading role in implementing the College’s bar success programming, and her efforts are widely credited by graduates as positively affecting their bar performance. Greer emphasized the importance of taking bar-tested subjects and early bar prep classes while in law school, consistently practicing bar essay and multiple-choice test taking throughout the bar study period, and substantially completing post-graduate summer bar review course assignments.

Greer noted that students who completed at least 75% of their commercial bar courses in the summer after graduation had a 93% first-time pass rate. Those who were successful on the exam, she said, dove into the practice tests early, using tools such as AdaptiBar to identify areas of focus for further study and UC Hastings’ free, post-graduation Bar Exam Supplemental Training (“BEST”) program to get substantive and structural feedback.

Mary Breffle, Class of 2020, credited the BEST Essay tutors with helping her battle her fears and boost her confidence. “Initially, I think I received a 50 on a practice essay and burst into tears,” she said. “However, once I got over my fear of submitting my essays for review and did that over and over, it was a game-changer.”

Breffle overcame personal hurdles as well. She shared a small one-bedroom apartment with her husband who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. To make ends meet, the two of them did yard work, painting, pet sitting, home repair, and other odd jobs for family, friends, and neighbors throughout the 14 weeks she studied for the exam.

In addition to academic support, UC Hastings provided quiet, private office spaces on campus where students could take the remote-proctored online bar exam.

One student who took advantage of the offer, Laura Tovar, Class of 2020, said she had to overcome technical difficulties on the first day that required her to spend 40 minutes on hold with software provider ExamSoft. As she frantically waited to learn whether she would still get a full hour to complete that essay (she did), a UC Hastings staff member was nearby (and socially distanced) to provide reassurance.

“If it hadn’t been for that staff member motivating me to calm down, I would not have made it,” she said.

Shandyn Pierce, Class of 2020, had called for diploma privilege as the best way to prevent significant harm to communities of color given the accumulation of outside stressors, including the racial justice movement, the pandemic, and political upheaval. “The bar exam creates this sort of tension,” he said. “It asks you to set aside all that is going on, including your feelings, in order to pass.”

Given the challenging circumstances, Pierce said he relied heavily on the school’s LEOP programming to help him succeed. When the pandemic hit, the program helped him prepare not only academically but also mentally for the stress and anxiety of the shift to an online format.