AccessLex Institute Research

Are Law Schools Cream-Skimming to Bolster Their Bar Exam Pass Rates? A Multilevel Regression Approach to Estimate How Attrition and Transfer Rates Affect Bar Passage

Jason M. Scott, AccessLex Institute
Joshua L. Jackson, AccessLex Institute


What drives bar exam success? For law schools, most empirical research has focused on admission factors, law school academic performance, bar preparation, and environmental factors. Essentially, the extant research has focused on who enters law school and what they do while they are there (and during that brief period between graduation and sitting for the bar exam). However, little research examines the institutional admission and retention policies that ultimately determine who graduates and therefore sits for the bar exam at a given school.

Using multilevel regression methods, we rigorously test the novel supposition described in a recent paper by Bahadur et al. (2021), which posits that a school’s bar passage rates are affected by the rate at which schools both lose students to academic attrition (presumably those students with the lowest grades and lower likelihoods of passing the bar exam) and gain students as a result of transfer (those students with higher grades and greater likelihoods of passing the bar exam)—a process which therefore inexorably alters the composition of law school cohorts. As a result, a school’s low or high pass rate—according to Bahadur et al.—is not driven by “pedagogy but rather prestidigitation. When law schools manipulate their matriculant pools via academic attrition and transfer, that sleight of hand improves their bar performance rates” (Bahadur et al., 2021, p. 2).

This open question is an important one—do law school attrition and transfer processes perhaps explain improved bar passage rates when other factors or programmatic interventions are credited with that success? Some interventions are heralded as the “silver bullet” for improving bar passage, and since schools expend considerable finite resources to help improve their students’ chances of passing the bar exam, it is important to identify whether the claims of a panacea might have more to do with attrition and transfer rates than with the program itself.