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New Michigan Bar Exam scoring causing a stir in legal community

Joe Gratz

Nearly half the people who took the latest state exam for aspiring attorneys failed.

Among first time test takers, just 62-percent passed; the lowest passage percentage in at least a decade.

Many in the legal community are blaming the sharp drop on the new way the test score is calculated.

Marcia McBrien is a spokeswoman for the Michigan Supreme Court. The court nominates the State Board of Law Examiners (BLE), which oversees the Michigan Bar Examination.

“The goal here is for those who pass the bar exam to have a certain level of competence and we think that’s what we’re doing,” McBrien said.

The board changed the formula it used to score the test in February and July this year.

Markedly more people failed both of those exams compared to previous years.

But McBrien says the BLE had good reason to make the changes because someone who’s not considered competent in Michigan law could have passed the bar under the past formula.

The new formula gives more weight to a number of essay questions that are focused on state law.

Under the prior formula, McBrien says, it was possible for someone to get an “incompetent” score on the Michigan law (essay) portion, but still pass the Bar because of a good score on the federal law portion.

So did “incompetent” people pass the Bar in the recent past in Michigan?

“Well I’m not going to go that far,” McBrien said, “But certainly it’s something that we don’t want to have happen, and after 7 exams it became clear that this could happen.”

But McBrien wouldn’t say the change caused this year’s poor test results, pointing out there could be a number of variables causing the outcome.

James Anderson took the bar exam in July shortly after graduating from Michigan State’s law school.

He knew it would be hard and he studied for weeks, but Anderson was one of hundreds who failed.


“It’s a terribly embarrassing experience because you know you talk to attorneys and everybody kind of has this general feeling ‘oh you’ll pass; you’re smart you’ll pass.' And so it’s – you kind of feel like dirt kind of for not passing,” Anderson said.

Anderson was not alone.

An unusually high percentage of people who took the two-day long test in July failed from every law school in the state.

Don LeDuc, President and Dean of Cooley Law School,published a harsh commentary on the exam results.

In it he says “it defies logic and experience that all Michigan's law schools would suddenly and simultaneously experience a decline in results of the magnitude represented in 2012.”

McBrien points out law schools always get an opportunity to weigh in on the questions and model answers for the exams.

“This is not a process where the law schools don’t have any input,” she said.

LeDuc says the results were a “great disservice” to the 2012 cohort and the law schools. While he says the school will need to work to improve outcomes for their students, he for one “…cannot accept that the 2012 results validly assessed our graduates. In short, these results are not for real.”

Anderson says some of peers are upset too.

He says he’s not mad, but is trying to get more information about how this could happen in one year.

“I felt like I was diligent in my three years. I took everything really seriously. I thought I was pretty competent. I studied hard specifically for the Bar Exam and now I have a sheet of paper that says I’m not competent to practice law,” Anderson said.

Anderson needed only 6 more points to pass the exam so he’s appealing the score, as many likely will in the next two weeks.

Otherwise, they can pay to take the exam again in February.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.