Many legal educators say the bar exam is an out-dated method of determining who is prepared to become a competent lawyer.
Nevertheless, they realize it's still a requirement for those who want to practice law.
The debate over its relevance versus the reality of its necessity forces today's law schools to try to strike the right balance between prepping students for the bar while equipping them to be effective advocates.
"The bar exam is pretty out-of-date at this point and needs to be updated," said Ted Sichelman, a University of San Diego School of Law professor who teaches intellectual property. "The biggest problem is that much of the subject matter in the bar exam is simply not applicable in practice today.
"Schools have to decide are they going to teach something that's not terribly applicable any longer or do they teach subjects that are applicable?"
He mentioned that intellectual property is a subject that isn't on the bar exam, even though about 10 percent of USD School of Law graduates enter that practice area. Corporate law and tax law also are absent and the type of contract law that test takers are asked about is mostly common law.
Sichelman is not alone. Some contend there is little correlation between a law school's bar passage rate and its quality of education.
"The frustrating part is (the bar passage rate) doesn't, in my mind, measure what kind of education the school is offering," said Tom Guernsey, dean of Thomas Jefferson School of Law. "The bar passage rate is so individualized to the student that it's hard to say that it's a reflection of what's actually going on in the classroom."
There is a correlation between the grade-point average and LSAT (Law School Admission Test) scores of a school's incoming students and its bar passage rate three years later. The higher the average LSAT, the higher the bar passage rate.
But school officials realize they can't ignore the bar entirely. Bar passage rates are published widely by U.S. News & World Report, and they usually are a major factor that potential students weigh when making their decision of which law school to attend.
"Students by and large come to law schools to become lawyers, and they expect to pass the bar exam when they're done," Guernsey said. "And obviously, from the standpoint of accreditation, it's important. If your passage rate is too low, you will have problems with the ABA in terms of accreditation.
"And it's important to alums because it's the one public objective measure that people can see in terms of the outcome of your education."
Niels Schaumann, dean of California Western School of Law, said law schools didn't use to "teach to the bar," choosing instead to let students use bar review courses. That is no longer the case, he said.
"What's happened in the last three years, with the full impact of the recession, schools have become aware that students have (high) expectations from schools they chose to attend," Schaumann said. "They expect to be prepared for the bar exam, and they have a reasonable expectation of passing."
With the cost of law school so high, students want to be confident they'll be employable soon after graduation, so they can start paying off their debt.
"Students are spending a lot of money, so as educators, we want to make sure our students do well on the bar exam to the extent we can," USD's Sichelman said.
While most can agree there is a problem with the bar exam, they admit the perfect solution is elusive.
Some suggest a post-graduate internship or residency, similar what is used in medical school. The first two years of law school could be reserved for classroom work and the final year spent in a law firm, with participants earning less than a typical first-year associate.
"Historically, that's what we had," California Western's Schaumann said. "It's what government agencies and big law firms did. But when the recession hit, they could no longer afford to pass the costs onto their clients.
"It's exactly what new law graduates need. They need to work side-by-side with experienced lawyers for some time before being competent to practice themselves."
In the meantime, local law schools offer as much bar prep support as possible, while also providing students with the skills to become productive attorneys.
TJSL features an intensive curriculum for students in the bottom 25 percent of their class by GPA so they can focus on skills needed to pass the bar.
California Western provides a bar review service at a deep discount for students.
USD School of Law recently launched a course to help students pass the bar. Sichelman teaches a review of all six subjects on the multistate bar exam.
While it's not required, Sichelman said it's useful because it gets third-year law students reviewing the material before summer, when many take the bar exam.
"The majority of law schools have developed academic success programs that are tailored to focus on developing skills to pass the bar exam," TJSL's Guernsey said.