Learning Curve

Brick-by-Brick: Building Bar Success with a Comprehensive Academic Skills Program

Rebecca Flanagan

Assistant Professor of Law and Director of Teaching and Learning Methods
UMass Law School

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2019

Citation: Rebecca Flanagan, Brick-by-Brick: Building Bar Success with a Comprehensive Academic Skills Program, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2019)

The ubiquitous question on law school campuses today is: what does it take to help graduates succeed on the bar exam? The responses differ depending on who you ask, and many of those responses are more reflective of wishful thinking than long-term planning. Despite the wishes of many law school administrators there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and bar success cannot be accomplished in one semester and $500, or even two semesters and $5000. Bar success is built brick by brick, semester by semester, over the course of a law school career.

Bar success starts with academic success. Students who struggle throughout law school are likely to struggle on the bar exam. A single bar course cannot teach the critical thinking or writing skills that require years to master. But bar success also requires a dedicated, compassionate staff to guide students through their law school career and through the stressful, high-pressure bar preparation season. Again, bar success is built brick by brick: each brick contributes to the stability of the overall structure; while one loose brick may not cause the structure to fall, a structure missing numerous bricks will have foundation problems and is unlikely to withstand pressure.

The Essential Bricks of Bar Success: 
1) It starts with admissions.
The admissions team must be a part of the bar success team. What does this mean?Admissions cannot admit students in a bubble. Admissions must know what factors are critical to bar success, and consider them when crafting an incoming class. In addition to LSAT scores and UGPA, there are additional factors that impact student success and are unique to every law school.  Bar success means understanding the hurdles faced by your particular students and working together to overcome these hurdles.

2) It continues during orientation.
Orientation is a magical time; incoming law students are excited and motivated to succeed, feelings that often recede as law school becomes less novel and more difficult. It is important to capture this magical moment and explain that bar success is a three-year (or four- or five-year, for part-time students) process; i.e., bar prep starts now. Orientation is the time to let students know that law school does not end at graduation, and elaborate post-graduate vacation and wedding plans should be planned for after the bar exam, not after graduation. Orientation is also the time to tell students that bar prep is expensive and they should be saving their pennies now. For nontraditional and working students, orientation is the time to tell them that they should be saving as much of their vacation and sick time as possible to use during bar preparation. It is also critical during Orientation to schedule a presentation from all members of the bar success team. The bar success team, and faculty, need to present a holistic view of law school accomplishment, bar success, and law practice readiness as one process.

3) First semester sets the stage.
First-semester study skills are sticky; if a student practices poor study habits in their first semester, it is very hard to break them of those dysfunctional habits later in their law school career. Law school study skills are not an extension of undergraduate or even graduate school study skills, because law school is nothing like undergraduate or graduate education. Law school does not have the professional advisors, frequent feedback, and extra credit opportunities that have become prevalent on undergraduate campuses. Students need to learn how to monitor their learning, seek out feedback and support, and accept constructive criticism. Adding a mandatory course, such as UMass School of Law’s Academic Skills Lab, or required, structured study groups, led by an upper-class student, focuses new students on productive study skills and provides the foundation for success in law school.

4) Committees dealing with curriculum, academic standards, and attrition must look at what helps students succeed on the bar.
Most law schools have a committee that manages academic standards and attrition. Law school academic standards should take a deep dive into the academic records and statistics on student success and use that information to craft standards that encourage student academic progress. It is important to note that many law school committees are entirely comprised of faculty members. Bar success teams should continue to push for their participation on these committees as much as possible. This helps foster open communication amongst all parties and keeps the entire campus community better informed.
Curriculum committees too often take the politically palatable path instead of making the hard choices that help students succeed. Structured course sequencing is not popular with students or faculty. Students do not want to take the difficult courses that focus on bar-tested subjects and enhance analytical skills. Faculty abhor course sequences that minimize electives, because it makes it harder to run the electives they want to teach. These political concerns need to be secondary to what helps students gain the thinking and writing skills required for success as practicing attorneys as well as on the bar exam.

5) Bar prep cannot be a one-man show.
Bar success requires all hands-on-deck. All professors must know what is tested on the bar and how it is tested. Professors should be explicit about skills that are needed for success on the bar, as well as skills that are essential for success in practice. While law school should not be three years of bar preparation, bar preparation cannot be divorced from a legal education. People do not go to law school to just think deep thoughts about important topics; people go to law school to be lawyers. And in 56 states and jurisdictions, becoming a lawyer requires passing a bar exam. Some professors often relegate bar prep to that “other person” who is in the basement or in another wing of the law school, and is often underpaid and overworked. As long as going to law school is about becoming a lawyer, and becoming a lawyer requires passing a bar exam, everyone in the law school needs to be invested in graduate success on the bar exam.

6) Leadership begins with dean.
The dean of the law school is really the leader of bar preparation. Without a dean committed to graduate success on the bar, nothing else really matters. The dean needs to set the tone for the faculty, and encourage faculty engagement in student and graduate success. The dean needs to set the tone for the students, from the start of their legal education, that the dean and faculty are committed to helping them succeed on the bar if they are willing to put in the hard work. Most crucially, the dean is the person capable of securing the funding necessary to support bar success. A law school dean needs to recognize and appreciate the hard work of bar preparation staff and faculty, and pay them accordingly. Moreover, success on the bar is unlikely if graduates are struggling to pay for a post-graduate bar preparation course. While few law schools have the funds to completely fund post-graduate bar preparation, most law schools must secure the funds to create programs that can support students during the post-grad bar preparation period. Even small bar stipends can make the difference for students struggling to pay for rent and food in June and July.

7) Hiring the right person (or people) for bar prep is your keystone.
Hiring the right person for bar prep is critical; effective bar preparation staff and faculty are the keystone that holds together your bar success structure. A director of bar preparation needs to be cheerleader, ringleader, and life coach. They need to be the cheerleaders who celebrate every student success, the ringleaders that foster the culture of hard work among students and graduates, and the life coaches for students struggling with the intensity and pressure of studying for the bar. In addition to the soft skills necessary to lead bar prep, the director needs to understand the research and statistics on bar success, and be a polymath of the law. A successful bar director needs to know, in detail, who succeeds on the bar, and why. They need to know the law, as it is tested on the bar, and be able to teach it to students who are exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Too many directors of bar preparation are underappreciated, and a person who feels unsupported is not going to be able to do everything it takes to help students succeed. And far too much of the time, bar directors are blamed for poor results on the bar exam when they were never given the tools to help their students and graduates succeed. There are no overnight bar success stories; despite what students hear, and some faculty might want to believe, bar success is a three-to-five-year project. An effective bar director requires more skills than almost any other position at the law school, and they need to be given the time to improve student skills.

Conclusions and Suggestions: 
1) Even strong structures need continual repair. “The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.” Bill Clinton
Unlike the bar exam itself, bar prep programs are not one and done. Bar prep programs need continual revisions and changes, because our students are different every year. Just because your bar prep program had success, does not mean that success will continue without sustained support. Removing resources from bar preparation because of success on one bar exam is a recipe for future failure. Every class of students and graduates needs steady bar prep programming that they can rely on.

2) Build a bar prep program for the students you have, not the students you used to have. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal . . .” Winston Churchill“
Even the best bar prep programs are going to have years where the results on the bar exam do not match the time and effort put into student success. Sometimes the results are a fluke; it was just a tough year. Sometimes the results indicate a weakness in one of the essential parts of the program. Every year is a new year, and every group of students is unique; the same programs may not work for different cohorts. The bar prep staff and faculty need to know that their jobs are safe even if the bar results fluctuate from year to year. No one does their best work when they feel insecure about job security. Bar preparation is an institutional responsibility. Each professor and administrator in a law school builds bar success by making sure they contribute strong, solid bricks to the bar prep infrastructure.

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