By Bob Egelko
A federal judge says the State Bar doesn’t violate the freedom of speech of California’s 18 state-accredited law schools by requiring their websites to inform prospective students how often their graduates pass the bar exam.
The requirement, which took full effect this year, was challenged by the Southern California Institute of Law, a night school in Ventura. The school argued in its lawsuit that it was being forced to transmit a message it disagrees with, the bar’s “unsubstantiated notion that the quality of legal education is linked to bar examination pass rates.”
But U.S. District Judge James Selna said Monday that the bar is simply requiring the school to disclose undisputed facts — its average passage rate for five years — as consumer information to the students it is trying to recruit.
“Prospective students are free to draw their own conclusions,” Selna said, and the school is free to tell them the numbers are irrelevant to the quality of education.
George Shohet, a lawyer for the school, said it probably would appeal. He said the bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners, which imposed the requirement, has acknowledged that no law students in California have complained that a school misled them by failing to post bar-passing rates.
The requirement is “a form of compelled speech,” Shohet said. He said the Southern California law school, whose 75 to 100 students are about 60 percent racial minorities, concentrates on “an analytical perspective, how to think and act like a lawyer,” rather than on preparing students for the bar exam.
Its five-year bar passing rate is about 33 percent, Shohet said. As of 2017, the State Bar plans to notify state-accredited law schools with passing rates below 40 percent that they are in danger of losing their accreditation.
The schools are those that the bar has certified for meeting its instructional standards, though at levels less demanding than the 21 California law schools accredited by the American Bar Association.
ABA-accredited institutions includes University of California law schools as well as such private schools as Golden Gate, Stanford and the University of San Francisco. State-accredited schools include San Francisco Law School as well as JFK in Pleasant Hill and Lincoln in San Jose.
California law schools do not need state or national accreditation to stay open, but their accreditation is a selling point for prospective students. At unaccredited law schools, all students who have completed a year of classes must pass a standardized state exam, known as the baby bar, to get their course credits.
Michael von Loewenfeldt, lawyer for the Committee of Bar Examiners, said the committee’s requirement – that state-accredited schools post their own passing rates or a link to the same information on the bar’s website – is part of an overall move toward consumer disclosure. A recent state law, he said, requires all private post-secondary schools to tell prospective students what percentage of their enrollees graduate, get jobs and pass any licensing exams their vocations require.
“Bar passage is an important measure of where you want to go to school,” he said.
— Reach Bob Egelko at email@example.com