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The College of Law receives grant to study bar exam passage rates

by Jessica Rotter,

Willamette Law Students

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Willamette Law graduates primarily prepared for the all-important bar exam largely solo. With a robust BEAST program and strong faculty support system, students were still preparing for the bar exam in isolation despite a return to in-person instruction. Though their peers going through the same process, collaborative bar exam preparation was difficult to encourage. As bar exam pass rates have declined nationally against this backdrop, Willamette Law faculty and staff began to wonder if bar passage rates would increase for examinees studying with and being accountable to their peers. 

An idea began to emerge from the success of 1L students’ cohort structure in their first academic year, what if a similar cohort model was applied to bar prep? From there, Willamette Law began to think about what an ideal study environment could possibly look like and how to ensure examinees with the highest chance of success on the bar the first time. 

Thanks to a generous grant from AccessLex Institute through its  Bar Success Intervention Grant Program, this idea is set to become a reality at Willamette Law. The grant will enable it to study how a cohort-based bar study program impacts first-time bar passage rates. One of the elements of this program will be the Helix Bar Review by AccessLex. 

The Grant Program provides funding to programs and interventions aimed at helping increase bar exam passage rates and to increase the knowledge base around effective bar exam success programming that is scalable and replicable. 

“This grant will help us build off of what we have already been doing with the BEAST program and our faculty support system,” says Melodye Mac Alpine, Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Administration. By providing students with the resources they need to study for and pass the bar, it will help to ease the burden and isolation, she says. 

Willamette Law will have two cohorts of participants, one in the summer of 2023 and another in the summer of 2024. Each participant will receive a stable place to study at the College of Law, faculty mentors, on-campus housing, physical and mental well-being resources, and a monthly stipend to offset living expenses during this period of study. This is designed especially to help bar examinees focus as fully on their studies as possible and to minimize the everyday stresses. 

“After going through the pandemic and extended remote learning, the isolation can be overwhelming. We really want to see if being accountable to others who are doing the same thing has an impact on success,” Mac Alpine shares. 

This grant provides a unique opportunity for Willamette Law graduates to be part of a structured study program that includes wrap-around services in order to inform how law schools think about bar exam preparation for future graduates. The bar exam is a critical component, currently, of becoming a practicing attorney. Mac Alpine shares, “until we have a 100% bar pass rate, there is room for improvement and innovation. We want to make sure we are doing what we can to support students to become practicing lawyers and the bar exam is an important hurdle to cross before they can get there.” She reflects that the law school does not view its role in educating future lawyers as stopping at graduation; rather, it remains dedicated to ensuring students can become licensed attorneys. 

As the cohorts progress throughout the bar preparation process, Willamette University Professor of Psychology Courtney Stevens will assist in the research design and program evaluation. “In education, we want to know what works — in this case, what are the resources and supports that can help students achieve their goal of passing the bar,” Stevens shares. “ We could sit back and talk about this question or draw on anecdotes from personal experience, but this grant provides an opportunity to address the question analytically - with data.” 

The data collected as part of this study will benefit law schools across the country as most of the resources available at Willamette Law will be similarly found at peer institutions. 

“At the end of the day, law graduates want and need to pass the bar in order to begin their professional careers. This project will provide supports for an immediate cohort of students and the information moving forward can inform supports and structures that can be used to support future law students,” Stevens says. 

Mac Alpine states that this grant will allow us to share data about what resources may impact first time bar success, allowing graduates to make data-driven choices about their preparation options.  

“I think it is important that students see what a valuable opportunity this grant has provided,” Mac Alpine says. “AccessLex Institute has opened the door for students to think more critically about the environment and support structures that will allow them best to prepare for the bar.” 

As Willamette Law begins to plan for the first cohort of students involved in this study, the ongoing partnership with AccessLex Institute continues to be an important one in preparing students to be licensed and practice-ready lawyers. 

About Willamette University College of Law

Willamette University College of Law was the first law school to open in the Pacific Northwest. Building on deep historic roots, we focus with pride on educating the next generation of problem-solving lawyers and leaders. Our location in Salem, Oregon, directly across the street from the Oregon State Capitol and Supreme Court, cannot be matched in the region. Our thought-leading scholars advance and promote our shared responsibility to make a difference in society, placing justice, fairness, and equality at the heart of everything we do.

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