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William C. Altreuter
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Thursday, April 28, 2011

The results of the New York bar exam from February have just been released: there was an overall pass rate of 48 percent, a decrease of two percentage points from last February's exam; the pass rate for first-time test-takers from American Bar Association-approved law schools was 76 percent, a 4.5 percentage point decrease from last year. Poor bastards, all of them, the passed and the failed.

For reasons that don't bear going into here I have recently been giving some thought to the whole bar exam thing. There are some states that waive the requirement if you graduate for an in-state law school, or at least there used to be: in Iowa they'd charter a bus from the commencement exercises to take the freshly minted lawyers over to the capital for swearing in. I'm not so sure that is necessarily how I would do things if I were King of the Lawyers. It seems to me that there is a value in requiring prospective lawyers to survey the entire law of a jurisdiction, at least once, and law school does not fill this need. People complain a great deal about the things that law school does not do, of course. It doesn't much prepare you to practice, and it doesn't prepare you to take the bar exam, and I'm sure there are plenty of other things it doesn't do. Law school is mostly useful for three things, I'd say. It trains you to think the way a lawyer thinks ("sharpens the mind by narrowing it" as Edmund Burke quipped); it gives people who don't know what they want to do when they grow up an expensive place to sit for three years; and it makes money for the university. All of these are fine things, especially the first, but there should be some sort of barrier to entry, and making that barrier proof that you have at least heard of the stuff you will be doing for the rest of your career seems reasonable to me.

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