LOS ANGELES – When Koichi Aoyagi, a renowned scholar of constitutional law and professor at Meiji University’s law school, admitted leaking questions for this year’s bar exam to one of his students, the news made headlines. Why would a distinguished professional with sterling credentials engage in what was clearly illegal and unethical behavior?
The answer may lie in the existence of a completely different kind of law that has relevance to legal education not only in Japan but in the United States as well. According to Campbell’s Law, the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption, and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.
As long as the amount of subsidies that the education ministry provides law schools in Japan is based on the percentage of those passing the bar exam, there will always be enormous pressure on law schools to make themselves look good on this closely watched exam.
That is particularly the case in Japan, where since 2004 students can sit for the bar exam up to three times only. Before the reform, there was no limit. Perhaps that change, coupled with an increasing but still historically low passage rate, played a role in Aoyagi’s decision to leak the bar exam questions.
Pressure is no less intense on law schools in the U.S., but for somewhat different reasons. When a stipulated percentage of law-school graduates doesn’t pass the bar, their schools are threatened with the loss of their accreditation. Beginning in 2012, accredited law schools have had to maintain a 40 percent minimum passage rate over five years. Nationally accredited law schools, like UCLA and USC, are required to have a 75 percent bar passage rate in three out of five years.
Equally worrisome is the employment picture. Ten months after graduation, only 60 percent of the law school class of 2014 had found full-time, long-term jobs that required passage of the bar exam.
Yet true to Campbell’s Law, law schools until recently reported as employed their graduates who were working full time in jobs not requiring passage of the bar exam. This transparent legerdemain was an attempt to make themselves look better than the reality of the marketplace.
Some law schools have even gone so far as to pay to place their graduates at nonprofit and government organizations until they find permanent work in line with their pricey legal education. When wind of this practice reached the American Bar Association, it proposed that these jobs not fully count unless they last a full year and pay an annual salary of at least $40,000. That compares with stipends of between $12,000 and $28,860 a year.
Caught in this embarrassing situation, the deans of 28 law schools wrote letters to the ABA to strongly protest the proposal, a step which further undermined public confidence in the integrity of data emanating from the schools about the success of their graduates.
Despite the bleak employment situation, however, there continues to be enough applicants to keep all but third-tier schools in business. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the latter are fighting hardest against change. The Southern California Institute of Law, for example, is suing the state bar, charging that the new regulations are unconstitutional because they will harm minority, lower-income students.
As long as Campbell’s Law is alive and well, it won’t be long before a scandal is bound to affect law schools in California and beyond. When bar passage rates are the primary basis for determining accreditation, something has to give. It may not reach the magnitude of the Aoyagi case, but it is inevitable. That has been the experience with all high-stakes exams. Law schools are no exception.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S. He taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years.
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