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CUNY Law responds to low bar exam pass rate

CUNY School of Law has taken measures to address the percentage of first-time bar exam takers who pass, which has fallen in the last three years and is currently ranked last in the state. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

CUNY School of Law in Flushing has made some policy changes in response to statistics showing only 63 percent of its students passed their first bar exam last summer, the lowest percentage in the state.

The New York Law Journal published the statistics in December, ranking all 15 of New York state’s law schools and showing each school’s performance for the past years.

CUNY rounded out the bottom of the list at 63 percent, ranking far behind seventh-place St. John’s University, also in Queens, where 88 percent of its students passed the bar. The state average was 86 percent.

But the data was not so cut and dry, according to a CUNY Law spokeswoman, who said that only 99 CUNY students took the bar in July 2011, the lowest number out of all the schools.

That means each failing student brought down CUNY’s score by nearly a percentage point. In addition, nine of those students were graduates from years past who returned for the exam this year.

Nevertheless, state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone), a ranking member on the Senate Higher Education Committee, called the statistics “troubling.”

But Stavisky also pointed out that since CUNY is far cheaper to attend than some of the top-ranking law schools like Columbia and New York University, which tied for first place with a 96 percent pass rate, CUNY students might be at a financial disadvantage.

Bar review courses, which help prepare law students specifically for the New York test much like an SAT prep class, can run more than $3,000.

Nevertheless, the dean of the law school, Michelle Anderson, recognized that changes needed to be made to the curriculum.

“The faculty and administration have adopted a series of policy changes to address our bar pass rate,” she said in a statement.

According to the law journal, 2011 marked the fourth year in a row that the CUNY Law passing rate had fallen for the July test, which is one of two offered by the New York State Bar Association. In 2008, the CUNY Law rate was 83 percent, the next year it was 80 percent, then in 2010 it was down to 73 percent before hitting 63 percent in 2011.

In November, the faculty voted for raising academic standards at the university. One of the measures that was later approved by the executive committee of CUNY’s board of trustees was raising the GPA required to remain a student in a good standing from 2.3 to 2.5.

In addition, the university would restrict struggling law students from taking pass/fail courses and would stipulate that struggling students in their sixth semester would have to take an extra semester of coursework. The changes will go into effect in the spring.

Stavisky said it was a good move designed to protect a vital institution in the borough.

CUNY specializes in producing public interest lawyers, who typically work for nonprofits.

“They are unique in training people to work for the public,” she said.

New York Law School, a private university located in Manhattan, ranked 12th with an 80 percent pass rate, instituted a program in 2003 to identify struggling students and reduce their course load while extending their curriculum by one semester at no extra cost, according to a spokeswoman for the university.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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