Professor Becomes Student

SBA President Marty Stratte asked me to write a piece for the Jeffersonian about my experience with the bar preparation program at Thomas Jefferson.  I am happy to do so and to speak with any student who has questions or concerns. 

First, many of you have probably seen me in the Legal Synthesis class.  After learning in November of the poor pass rate on the July 2011 exam, the faculty immediately took steps to investigate the problem.  The Dean recently circulated a memo to the students providing details.  In addition, I suggested that faculty members run some of the Legal Synthesis small sections, and many of my colleagues quickly agreed.  We saw three immediate benefits.  First, we could directly help our students prepare for the July bar.  Second, we could learn more about our existing program and thus ways it might be improved.  And third, it would enable staff members who normally work on the bar support team to dedicate more of their time to the unusual number of graduates from last May who are taking the bar again in February. 

When I saw my spring teaching schedule, I realized that I would be able to attend the large Legal Synthesis lectures as well.  I decided to take the class essentially as a student to get the best possible insight into the issues that you face.

The first two classes focused on contract law.  My worst first-year grade was in contracts, and I never had a case in practice dealing with the subject.  I literally hadn’t thought about contracts analysis in 25 years.  After listening to the lectures and reviewing the schema in class, I feel confident that I have the information necessary to write a passing contracts essay on the bar.  For me, the repeated references to past bar exam essay questions gave me sense of how the substantive law would be tested on the bar.  I still need to practice writing out essays to get fully comfortable with the law and the style that bar exam graders reward.  And when I wrote an essay with the students, I could not yet remember the exact language for each rule. I looked back at the schema in writing my answer as we were instructed to do.  But I now know that I can do it.  And I am sure that my students can do so as well. 

With respect to our bar program generally, both Legal Synthesis and Bar Secrets are TJSL programs.  I have heard people say that Professors Saccuzzo and Johnson “market their program.”  This is really a misnomer.  They have obvious pride in the program that they teach, and they want students to take it.  I feel the same way about my classes.  But just as I receive no personal benefit if more students take my antitrust class, Professors Saccuzzo and Johnson would not receive any personal benefit if a few more students take Bar Secrets.  At bottom, we benefit when you pass the bar, and we all suffer when any of our students fail.  If there were a program that was demonstrably the best for everyone, we would like nothing better than to have every student take it.

I know that it is frustrating to hear that we cannot identify “the most effective program.”  But there is no clear statistical winner.  And, in any event, statistics cannot guarantee individual results.  Each individual is different.  I had a student a few years ago who graduated with a 2.1 GPA.  He called me repeatedly with property questions as the bar approached, and he passed in California on the first try.  Around the same time, a woman named Cathleen Sullivan took the California Bar.  She had graduated from, and was a professor at, Harvard Law School.  She moved to Stanford Law School and became the dean.  When she stepped down as dean, she decided to practice law again and needed to take the California bar.  She was obviously a very smart woman.  She failed the bar.  What can we take away from this?  Passing the bar comes down to individual preparation.  You can be one of the smartest people in the country and fail.  And you can be someone who just scraped by in law school and pass on the first try.  No course has a magic bullet; they all provide the basic material and you have to take it from there.

Lastly, Marty asked me to address the negative press about TJSL in the blogosphere.  I am reluctant to engage uninformed commentary that is obviously written to be provocative.  For example, I saw a post criticizing TJSL because it offers an in-house bar review program.  Amazingly, the statistics cited by the author of the post showed that this program has historically helped students pass the bar at levels equal to, and in many cases better than, significantly more expensive commercial bar courses.  During the time this course has been available at TJSL, over 85% of TJSL graduates have passed the bar.  To be sure, 2011 was a horrible year.  But it differs markedly from what came before, and as the Dean explained, we immediately reacted by examining every aspect of our programs. Yet, without ever contacting the school, the author of the blog post erroneously accused TJSL of blaming its students and taking no action.  Please consider the source when you read stories on the internet, and don’t assume that they are true.  If something troubles you, don’t hesitate to contact any faculty member.  Our job is to help you succeed, and we all take it seriously.

In closing, I am as frustrated as you are that I can’t provide a definitive answer about what happened with the bar last year.  I can tell you this.  Over the 12 years that I have been involved in legal education, many California law schools have had bad exam administrations with results even lower than ours.  Those schools bounced back, and we will too.  We may never know for sure what went wrong but the task force will provide a thorough evaluation of our programming, including expert outside review, so that we know moving forward that we are doing everything we can to support our students as they prepare for the bar.  And at the end of the day, Thomas Jefferson School of Law is our law school.  Making it the best that it can be is in all of our best interests.  We need to identify faults and work to fix them.  And we will.