Monday, May 17, 2004 | 10:59 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- Nationwide, only about 25 percent of law school graduates fail their first attempt to pass the bar exam that would let them practice law. But when graduates of UNLV's Boyd School of Law take Nevada bar exams for the first time, about 40 percent of them fail, the dean of the school said.
It's not a problem with the quality of instruction at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' law school; rather, the state's relatively difficult bar exam is the culprit, Dean Richard Morgan told a legislative committee last week.
Morgan explained to the state lawmakers that although only about 60 percent of UNLV graduates pass the Nevada bar exam the first time they take the test, a similar rate holds true for graduates of other schools taking the Nevada test for the first time.
That's because the Nevada bar exam is one of the most rigorous in the nation, Morgan told the legislative committee reviewing the criminal justice system in rural Nevada. It is among the two or three toughest to pass, he said.
"Our students measure up just as any other student," when it comes to the Nevada bar exam, Morgan told the committee. Still, Morgan said, "we're trying to improve the (UNLV graduates') pass rate."
Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, based in Madison, Wis., said exact comparisons of bar exams from state to state is difficult because the tests differ. But, she said, Nevada is certainly among the top third of states that demand higher scores on the test than others.
According to the Nevada Bar Association, 55 percent of Boyd students passed the bar exam last July, compared with a pass rate of 61 percent for all students who took the test.
And in 2001, the first year Boyd graduates took the exam, they matched the overall pass rate of 64 percent.
However, in February, the first time the exam has been offered twice during the year, the Boyd pass rate was far behind the overall pass rate. Only 36 percent of the 67 UNLV graduates who took the test passed, compared with a 50 percent pass rate overall.
Morgan said Tuesday that is partly because many of the students who take the test are retaking it after failing it once already.
Of the 15 Boyd students who were taking the test for the first time, seven passed, "which is pretty close to the state pass rate," he said.
Moeser also said those taking the exam for the first time typically have a higher pass rate across the nation.
In early April, the Boyd School of Law was ranked by U.S. News as the 82nd best law school of the 177 accredited schools in the U.S., quite a feat for a school that had only earned full accreditation in February 2003, experts said.
The discussion about the graduates' bar exam pass rates was not the main reason Morgan was before the committee. He was there was to discuss how to increase legal assistance in rural Nevada.
Morgan and Christine Smith, associate dean for administration and student affairs, said they have worked out a "loan forgiveness" program for lawyers who go into low-paying jobs to help the indigent.
Morgan said that more than 90 percent of those who graduate stay in Nevada.
Even though UNLV law school tuition is below the national average, many students still end up in debt. The annual tuition for a Nevada resident is $8,000 and for a non-resident it is $15,000.
Nevada's tuition is a little higher than similar schools in the Rocky Mountain states but far below the $17,000 charged in California, said Morgan.
Some students can still rack up $80,000 in debt, however, so they wind up "less willing to take a $30,000-to-$40,000 job in rural Nevada," Morgan said. He and Smith said they have developed a program to provide an incentive for students who go into public service.
A student would be given an extra $6,000 a year if he or she took a hard-to-fill job in public service.
"Now we need to find the funding" to supply the annual incentive money, Smith said.
Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, who is chairman of the committee, said some rural counties may want to provide housing for lawyers as a draw to practice.
Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, suggested that part of the tuition paid by students could be set aside for this "loan forgiveness" proposal.
Morgan said the law school is now in the process of raising tuition, and the Board of Regents wants to set aside part of that money for scholarships. But he said future increases could be set aside for the program to lure students to help low-income people.