On May 28, 2019, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted a petition amending rules governing admissions to the Mississippi Bar. As a result of this change, many are taking notice and wondering if the change is an anomaly that will only impact the Mississippi bar, or an idea that could catch fire throughout the country.
So, What Exactly did the Mississippi Supreme Court Change?
The Mississippi Supreme Court is responsible for the rules governing the admission of attorneys in the state. The rule “change” was actually an addition to the “Rules Governing Admission to the Mississippi Bar,” that will now apply to all applicants taking the bar exam after February 2020. The language states that an applicant “who has unsuccessfully taken the Mississippi Bar Exam” 3 times will not be eligible to take the exam again until he or she has taken and completed 12 “additional semester hours of law school courses at an ABA accredited law school relevant to subjects covered by or skills necessary to the passage of the” bar exam. (Rule IV, Section 8) To sit for an additional bar exam after completing the 12 units, the applicant must obtain a certificate of successful completion. If the applicant fails again, he or she must re-enroll in 12 more hours of coursework before being allowed to sit for the bar again.
What are the Facts Surrounding this Change?
There are no state accredited law schools (non-ABA) in Mississippi. There is also no ability to become an attorney by “reading for the bar” or through an apprenticeship program. To sit for the bar in Mississippi, an applicant must have completed a law degree at an ABA accredited law school. (Rule IV, Section 5) It should be noted, there are only two ABA accredited law schools in Mississippi.
Mississippi news sources have reported that the bar pass rate in Mississippi has dropped from 79% in 2014 to 48% last year. No one claims to understand the reason for this huge drop, other than to note that law schools have been admitting “less qualified students” more recently. However, other commentators note that graduating from an ABA law school is no small feat, indicating an ability to practice law. There is even some discussion that the ability to pass might actually be more related to the quality of bar prep the applicant is able to afford. (See Mississippi Clarion Ledger, June 6, 2019, “… If you fail the Mississippi bar exam …”)
Is Mississippi Reacting to the New ABA Standards?
After raising and discussing the issue for many years, the ABA is attempting again to tighten accreditation standards for law schools. Under a new proposed standard, an ABA accredited law school will have to show that 75% of its graduates pass a bar exam within 2 years of graduation. This is a much stricter proposal from those made in the past that require schools to show a 75% pass rate over 5 years. If this new standard is adopted, how many ABA schools will be in danger of losing their accreditation? Is this the Mississippi judiciary’s way of getting the attention of their own law schools to take all necessary steps to meet this new ABA standard? Will other states follow suit, especially if they have a limited number of law schools that produce lawyers for their own jurisdiction?
Keep in mind, there is anecdotal evidence the bar exam has become more difficult to pass specifically due to the MBE. States are using different cut scores for passing, and some recent changes have even placed more emphasis on the MBE by giving it more weight.
Could there be Unintended Consequences Linked to this New Mississippi Rule?
For years, the ABA and various bar examiners have expressed their concern for law students who have become burdened by the high cost of a legal education but are unable to pass the bar exam. Added to this concern is the perception that law schools produce too many lawyers, compared to the number of jobs available for new lawyers.
I have another view though. Rural communities and the poor are underserved by the legal profession. For the most part new lawyers with student loan debt are looking for a BigLaw job, or one that will pay them enough to make their monthly loan payments or help them get loan forgiveness. While working for legal services or some other rural legal service agency might qualify an attorney for loan forgiveness, the level of pay and benefits in these jobs does not lend itself to long term job retention or satisfaction.
So, what happens when you reduce the number of people taking the bar exam in a state like Mississippi which ranks 46th in the number of attorneys serving people in the state – or 23 attorneys per 10,000 people, when the national average is 39 attorneys per 10,000 people? (See other state ratios at, www.lawyersofdistinction.com/lawyers-by-capita-per-state.) I don’t know – but I’m not confident the ABA or the Mississippi judiciary does either.