PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s only law school was one of 10 nationwide that didn’t meet a key standard, set by a council of the American Bar Association, that 75 percent of an institution’s law graduates pass a bar exam within two years.

There are 203 schools accredited by the ABA. The University of South Dakota School of Law group for the 2017 academic year had 67 percent of its graduates pass the bar within two years, which was below national compliance.

Neil Fulton, USD law school dean since 2019, said Monday the ABA standard was adopted in 2019 and took immediate effect. He said the USD passage rate for the 2018 cohort was 79 percent, and for 2019 it was 86 percent.

“I believe that our increase in bar passage will be sustained. USD Law has increased entering class credential thresholds, implemented a mandatory bar review class, and pursued an aggressive program of merit-based scholarships,” Fulton said.

“For the coming year, faculty adopted an ‘early warning’ program that will mandate participation in academic excellence workshops focused on metacognitive skills — to boost the ability of students to be better learners — and doctrine in those classes which are proving more difficult,” he continued. “We are working to bring higher-credentialed students in the door, teach them better while they are here, and prepare them better for the bar as they go out. These efforts are paying off.”

USD’s difficulty reflected a broader trend, according to Fulton.

“In the late 2010s nationwide, law school applications and credentials declined. Applications dropped about 40% nationwide in 2010. Many jurisdictions saw precipitous drops in bar passage rates around that time. In 2016, the nationwide first-time bar passage rate fell to 69%,” he said.

Roger Baron was a long-time member of the USD law faculty before retiring. He now maintains an Internet listserve where lawyers can ask and answer questions among themselves.

“The law school has been dealing with a moving target — or in current terms, the goal line has been moved and it has been moved more than once,” Baron said. “Some of the factors include the nature of the exam, the subjects tested and the level of competency required to pass. Each of these factors have evolved and been changed in recent years.”

Baron continued, “On the other hand, the calculus employed to ensure that law graduates will be successful on the exam begins with the admission process and that occurs four or more years before the bar examination is administered for any individual.”

Baron raised a broader issue — the exam process.

“There is a school of thought that suggests that the bar exam be eliminated altogether. That might not be a bad idea. I know that there are very some solid graduates out there who have not passed the bar exam, even after multiple attempts, and these graduates would be solid lawyers,” he said. “The ability to pass a bar exam is not a predictor as to the quality of lawyer that will be produced. The ability to pass an exam is a predictor of one’s ability to pass an exam.”

Fulton previously was on the South Dakota State Board of Bar Examiners that serves as part of the screening process for who gets a license to practice law. The South Dakota Supreme Court appoints the five examiners.

He noted the National Conference of Bar Examiners has a testing task force that’s completed two years of a three-year review of what works well and what could be made better. “And they’re really trying to wrestle with that question,” Fulton said.

In addition to an applicant graduating from a law school and passing the bar exam, South Dakota also requires the applicant be of good moral character.

“I think all of these things are important,” Fulton said.