The legal profession has been a career that many aspire to obtain, but becoming an attorney in Mississippi is proving more difficult in recent years.
The passage rate for the Mississippi bar exam to become a licensed attorney in the state has dropped from about 80 percent passing to about a third passing on the most recent exam.
On the most recent bar exam in February, 87 individuals took the exam, and only 27 passed, meaning less than a third of those who took it passed. The next exam is in late July.
Two years ago, on the February 2015 bar exam, about 97 took the test and 54 passed, according to the posted results.
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The Mississippi Supreme Court annual report for 2016 shows the Board of Bar Admissions processed 27 applications for registration as law students, and 343 applications for examination. A total of 276 people took the bar exam in 2016. The pass rate was 68.8 percent, down from the previous year when 75.1 percent passed, according to the report.
No one seems to know for sure why the exam passing rate is declining, but some have suggested that it may be that law schools are accepting less qualified students to their programs.
Ole Miss Law School Interim Dean Deborah Bell refutes that notion.
“First, the University of Mississippi School of Law has not lowered its admissions standards,” Bell said. “Our median LSAT and median undergraduate GPA remain the same as they have for many years.”
“Second, it is important to focus on the measure that is historically used to test a law school’s success on the bar — the number of first time takers who passed,” she said
The February bar was unusual because it included a high number of applicants retaking the exam. Only slightly more than half were first-time takers. And, it is a small number of total takers, not a good sample standing alone.
Bell said the best annual statistic for small population states like Mississippi is to look at the results for first-time takers for the entire year, including both the July 2016 and February 2017 exam.
Mississippi’s pass rate for first time takers for February 2017 was 57.1 percent and for UM Law first-time takers, the pass rate was 60 percent, Bell said.
“However, for the 2016-17 year (combining July 2016 and February 2017 results), our students’ first-time pass rate for the year was 72.6 percent. While we certainly want to improve the pass rate, it is not the disastrously low pass rate that some have reported,” according to Bell.
Mississippi College School of Law Interim Dean Patricia Bennett said Wednesday there is no one explanation for the national decline in bar passage rates, and certainly Mississippi is not unique in this regard.
“Many states, including California and Florida, have seen significant declines,” Bennett said. “MC Law has never changed its admission strategy of enrolling students who we believe can ultimately become successful attorneys.”
The American Bar Association reported in April that the national bar passing rate fell to 58 percent in 2016, the lowest in a decade, according to National Conference of Bar Examiners statistics.
Bennett said the bar passage rates of both Mississippi law schools have remained competitive, but can always improve.
“We continue our dedication to providing resources to our graduates as they prepare for the bar exam including partnering with one of the leading bar preparation companies in the country,” Bennett said. “Our goal, as always, is to graduate individuals who will become productive members of the bar in Mississippi and beyond.
Karen Peairs, president of the state’s African-American legal organization Magnolia Bar Association, said “I don’t believe that people are sure really why the drop is occurring and there are competing theories.”
Jackson attorney Lilli Evans Bass, the incoming president of the Magnolia Bar Association, said it can be very stressful taking the bar exam. She took the test in 2008.
“It’s stressful for any new graduate,” Bass said of taking the exam. “It’s one shot in determining if you will be licensed and able to use the degree without waiting months to retake it.”
The Mississippi bar exam is given twice a year, in February and July. The passage rate had been as high as 85 percent a decade ago.
Mississippi Bar Association Executive Director Deanne Mosley said the bar hasn’t adopted a statement on the exam passage rate since the exam and admission requirements do not fall under its purview.
“Our involvement begins once we receive from the Mississippi Board of Bar Admissions the list of those applicants it has deemed qualified for admission,” Mosley said.
About the exam
The Mississippi Bar exam is a two-day test.
The exam subject areas include:
- Constitutional Law
- Criminal Law/Procedure
- Real Property