National Post

Tuesday, December 22, 1998

Fewer pass chef test than bar exam
Law Society of Upper Canada made writing exam easier

Adrian Humphreys
National Post

Is it easier to pass the bar examinations to become a lawyer or get through clown college? Or how about flip steaks for a restaurant chain?

Looking at success rates, the percentage of students who aced the last round of bar admission exams with the Law Society of Upper Canada far exceeds that of the last group of students who passed through the Ringling Bros. Clown College in Florida, and that of those who want to cook the steaks at any Keg restaurant in Canada or the United States.

A striking 97% of wannabe lawyers passed the bar's public law exam and 95% passed the professional responsibility and civil law exams.

Compared to the paltry 25% who can cut it all the way through the 10-week course to become a circus clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the 30% success rate to become a broiler chef at the Keg, the bar exams suddenly seem an easy bet.

And becoming a lawyer is getting easier.

Responding to complaints from students over the pressure-cooker examinations needed to be passed before a law school graduate can practise as a lawyer, this year the law society gave students an extra hour to write their exams, made sample tests available -- officially -- for the first time and gave students who fail access to their paper to find out where they went wrong.

The result of the changes is a bumper crop of some of the highest marks that the law society has seen, forcing the society to lowered the grade that was considered a failure -- or face failing students who achieved 74% on the test.

The man in charge of the society's testing said the change should not be misunderstood; it is not that this year's students are so much smarter than past students, nor was the passing standard lowered because the class of '98 is dumb.

It's all about statistics, said Bob Bernhardt, the society's acting director of education.

The bar admission tests are scored along a complicated formula -- similar to a bell curve -- that always results in about 8-12% of law students failing, regardless of the grade they get on the test.

All the test scores are fed into a computer by a statistics professor which immediately discards unusually high or low marks. Then the marks are compared to how the majority of students fared. The lowest are considered failures.

But sticking to the regular formula meant students who got excellent marks because of the extra time to write the exam were being given a failing grade.

"I would not want to fail students who I think have demonstrated a reasonable level of competence," said Mr. Bernhardt. So the failure bar was lowered from the one statistically mandated to an even 65%.

The change pulled 100 of 1,200 students writing the public law exam from failure, saved 70 from flunking their civil law exam and made 30 students instant successes in professional responsibility.

This statistical dilemma comes on the heels of a controversial decision by the society earlier this year to allow 29 students who failed their bar exams to become lawyers after personal interviews. The majority of the failing students were visible minorities, women, aboriginals, francophones, disabled, or mature students.

The bar course is the final step in becoming a lawyer. It comes after three years of law school and a one year of apprenticeship.

The primary goal of the exams is to ensure all who pass them are competent to practise law and that is not jeopardized by the new procedures, said Mr. Bernhardt.

Said Dean Sockett, director of human resources for the Keg: "It takes a very special person to cook a Keg steak to our satisfaction."

Copyright Southam Inc. All right reserved.