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SC law schools frigid in February

Second winter UBE harsher than the first

The University of South Carolina and Charleston law schools combined for a 37.3 percent pass rate on the most recent bar exam, each continuing its recent February slide.

Forty-three USC grads sat for the exam; 18 passed. The 41.86 percent pass rate was USC’s lowest in several years, down six points from a year ago. Seventy-five percent of USC test-takers passed February 2013’s bar, followed by a 62 percent showing the following year. Since then, fewer Gamecocks have found success each February.

USC’s law dean, Robert Wilcox, said that because of the number of variables, it’s difficult to know how much, if at all, the UBE is to blame for the school’s falling February pass rates.

USC has never seen half of its February examinees pass the UBE, but fewer than half of its test-takers passed the traditional bar in February 2016, before the state adopted the UBE. Further, 76 percent of USC grads passed the July 2017 UBE.

Perhaps this is an indication that February is to blame, not the UBE. It is unclear, however, how those who sit for the UBE in South Carolina stack up to UBE takers in other states, because we do not know how the passing South Carolina scores compare to their out-of-state counterparts.

South Carolina requires the second-lowest passing score of all the UBE jurisdictions, so a passing score of 266 in South Carolina would be a failing score in Alaska and Colorado, which require scores of 280 and 276, respectively. North Carolina, which will administer the UBE beginning February 2019, will require a 270.

Speculation aside, USC graduates need to do better in February if they hope to be sworn into the South Carolina bar, much less obtain a portable score that would allow them to apply for licensure in other states.

“We consider low February bar results to be an issue we need to find a way to improve upon, regardless of the exam’s format,” Wilcox said.

Charleston’s 32.81 percent pass rate (21 of 64) continued its own February slide, down nearly 10 points from a year ago. Dean Andy Abrams spoke with Lawyers Weekly last year about initiatives the school began taking to increase its bar success. They include a bar task force; diagnostic exams; a faculty mentor assigned to each student; a mandatory bar prep course; and a BARBRI partnership.

Abrams conceded that the school’s most recent showing does not meet expectations, but told Lawyers Weekly that while many students retaking the exam continue to struggle, first-timers — graduates who were still in school for bar programming — did “significantly better.”

Both schools’ slumping pass rates follow a national trend that has seen passage rates plummet over the last few years, on both traditional bar exams and the UBE. Of course, it is relatively commonplace for schools to fare better in July, since February’s smaller pool tends to include individuals who have previously failed the exam.

Graduates from out-of-state schools fared much better than did USC and Charleston, with 102 of 149 test-takers (68.46 percent) passing. The showing by graduates outside the Palmetto State boosted the overall pass rate for February’s bar to 55.08 percent.

For out-of-state test-takers to outdo in-state ones is not necessarily peculiar, since many are lawyers who have already passed a bar exam in another jurisdiction.

One such test-taker is Jamie Nichols Jr., a North Carolina attorney and Rock Hill native who chose to leave home and attend law school at Michigan State University. He passed July’s North Carolina bar exam, and decided to take South Carolina’s because he plans to live and practice in his home state.

Nichols passed and will soon be licensed in both Carolinas. He told Lawyers Weekly that he found the Multistate Bar Examination multiple choice questions noticeably tougher on South Carolina’s exam, but added that he was more confident studying the second time around, knowing that he had already conquered one bar.

“You just know what to expect,” he said.

The swearing-in ceremony for applicants who completed all requirements for admission to the South Carolina State Bar will be held May 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the Koger Center in Columbia.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher

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