Case Study

Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program helps students apply a growth mindset to test-taking stress, leading to increased bar exam passage and access to the legal profession

ENGAGEMENT HIGHLIGHTS

Program Increased Total Bar Scores By
Total Score Points On Average
EA initiatives improved passage rates by
%
percentage points overall
Participants That Passed the Bar
+
because of EA initiatives

THE OPPORTUNITY

Every year, tens of thousands of students enroll in law school with the hopes of entering the legal field, but around a third of those students do not pass the bar exam three years later. Achievement gaps in legal education disproportionately affect structurally disadvantaged* groups, and this is also reflected in the field. In the US, only 15% of lawyers are people of color, and barely a third of all lawyers are women. Research by EA and a team of law and psychology researchers from Indiana University, University of Southern California, and Stanford University (previously known as Mindsets in Legal Education (MILE) and have conducted this research at EA since 2022) showed that the root of the problem may reside in social psychological friction, exacerbated by inequities and structural features of the bar exam. It is common for students to feel stress and worry about their ability, potential, and belonging during their transition into law school, within their classes, and when studying for the bar exam. When students experience this friction, it impedes them from achieving their full potential, impacting their experiences and outcomes in law school and affecting their preparation and performance on the bar exam.

Are there scalable ways to help law students who take the bar exam address this friction, so they can better prepare and improve their performance?

OUR PARTNERSHIP

EA, with support from AccessLex and The State Bar of California, created the Bar Exam Strategies and Stories program to address this question. After conducting surveys and focus groups of California bar exam participants, we found that applicants experienced considerable stress and anxiety when preparing for the exam, which impacted the quality of their studies and performance. We developed an online program designed to address and mitigate these psychological factors hindering student success with passing the bar exam.

The program includes an introductory film, stories from prior test-takers, and a writing activity, in which participants share insights and strategies that may be useful to them and to future test-takers. These elements were designed to help test-takers apply a growth mindset to their studies by finding productive ways to interpret challenges, obstacles, and negative psychological experiences associated with preparing for the exam. The State Bar of California offered this online program to all applicants for their state bar exams from July 2018 to July 2023.

EA also prepared a report for the Supreme Court of California, which empirically evaluated California’s prior passage threshold on the bar exam of 1440 (“the cut score”). Based in part on our comprehensive report, the Supreme Court permanently lowered the cut score from 1440 to 1390. As a result, our recent report Evaluating a Productive Mindset and Structural Intervention that Promotes Achievement on California's Bar Exam describes how coupling a growth mindset program and this structural change enhanced passage rates on the bar exam, especially for first-generation students and underrepresented minority applicants.

THE IMPACT

After six years of the program, we have gathered unprecedented data, and the results are clear.

Key program results:

    • Increased total bar scores by approximately 18 points on average
    • Lifted total bar scores by approximately 21 points on average for first-generation students and applicants of color
    • Combined with our recommendation to lower the bar passage score to 1390 from 1440, improved passage rates by 20 percentage points overall
    • Reduced psychological friction and promoted stress-is-enhancing growth mindsets

In total, we estimate that over 1,000 applicants enrolled in the California Bar Strategies and Stories Program passed the bar exam who otherwise would not have. Our analysis also revealed that this impact was equity-enhancing. Over 700 structurally disadvantaged* applicants (racial/ethnic minority applicants and first-generation college students) enrolled in the program passed the California bar exam who would not have. By applying a growth mindset towards the way applicants think about stress and mistakes when studying for the exam, not only helped all law students fulfill their potential to become lawyers and gain access to the legal profession, but also helped to reduce the equity gaps on the bar exam.

Early in law school, I hated making mistakes because of how it made me feel behind my peers or incompetent, however I quickly realized that mistakes are a great value because they show you areas you are lacking in and should focus on. Additionally if you make a mistake and acknowledge and practice, it is a lot less likely you will forget and make the same mistake again.

Participant

When I feel stressed, I can remind myself that it means that I care. I can take a step back and think about what is causing my stress (wanting to pass so I can become a lawyer, wanting to be a lawyer, so I can help people.) I am stressed because this is important to me and my goals. I can channel that stress into positivity, optimism, and hard work instead of fear and worry.

Participant

*We use the term structurally disadvantaged throughout this report to refer to first-generation college students and individuals from racial and ethnic groups who experience disproportionate obstacles in their education pursuits as a result of structural and systemic barriers to access and opportunities in higher education that undermine representation, academic retention and achievement for students who, absent an oppressive culture, can thrive.

Read the full report

Evaluating a Productive Mindset and Structural Intervention that Promotes Achievement on California’s Bar Exam

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