(VIDEO) Texas Tech School of Law sees record passing rates on bar exam as graduates explore various options while receiving tremendous support from the school.
Christopher Egbunike determined midway through his time at Texas Tech University's School of Law that he wanted to switch from corporate law to intellectual property. In particular, he wanted to be a patent prosecutor, the one person who handles the paperwork for inventors seeking patents for their creations.
In order to do that, one necessity was to have as broad a reach as possible. That meant being licensed in as many states as needed, something taking the Texas Bar Exam would not allow. Therefore, Egbunike decided long ago to take the Universal Bar Exam (UBE) offered by several states, including New Mexico. Results of the UBE are accepted in 36 states.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Needless to say, the pandemic turned the world upside down,” Egbunike said. “Those of us preparing for the bar exam were facing an incredible amount of uncertainty on top of the plethora of issues COVID-19 created in our individual lives, and the inherent stress of studying for one of the most important exams of our lives.”
Egbunike, like all others Texas Tech law graduates preparing for the exam, had a decision to make. A big factor for those studying for the UBE was the fact that New Mexico now required a 14-day quarantine for all out-of-state visitors. That added a huge financial burden to students already facing mountains of student debt.
For some, it meant a change in plans, going from the UBE to the online exam offered by the state of Texas. The New Mexico exam was moved from July 2020 to September 2020, and the Texas exam provided an in-person offering in September and an online offering in October.
“I switched to the Texas online exam because my current job was initially scheduled to start the week to which the New Mexico exam was delayed,” said Brooke Bohlen, a recent law school graduate who took her bar exam in the fall. “I did not want to miss the first week of work for the bar exam. So, the dates of the online exam just worked out better, and I avoided having to find and pay for accommodations to quarantine in New Mexico for two weeks.
“At the time, too, the pandemic still had things so up in the air that I thought the in-person exams may end up getting canceled last minute, leaving the examinees with no option but to take the next administration of the exam in February (2021). Of course, the in-person New Mexico exam did not get canceled in the end, and the start date of my job ended up getting pushed back, so it all would have worked out for me to take the New Mexico exam. Still, switching to the Texas online exam seemed like the best decision for me at the time.”
Through it all, whether students took the UBE in New Mexico or the online Texas Bar Exam, the one constant was the support of both the Texas Tech School of Law and its alumni, who not only stepped up to help graduates prepare for the bar exam but also lent financial assistance to those who stuck with the New Mexico exam. Their combined efforts helped Texas Tech law graduates pass with outstanding success.
Texas Tech ranked No. 1 in the state with a 92.31% (24 of 26) pass rate on the October Texas Bar Exam for first-time test takers, the highest bar passage rate of any law school in Texas. Texas Tech also ranked No. 2 in the state in the combined September and October administrations of the Texas Bar Exam at 92.31%, with 12 of 13 first-time test takers passing the September in-person exams.
Additionally, all 58 May 2020 graduates who took the UBE version in New Mexico, passed, with a 95.2% pass rate for first-time test takers. For 2021, Texas has adapted and begun administering the UBE exam.
“It was so inspiring to see the entire Texas Tech Law School community spring into action to support our graduates during such a stressful time,” Dean Jack Wade Nowlin said. “They knew our community was behind them, and the assistance we provided allowed them to put their focus back where it belonged – on passing the bar exam. These graduates faced exam delays, quarantines and health concerns, yet they remained determined to succeed. In the end, the outstanding pass rates of our May 2020 graduates are a testament to the talent, hard work and resilience of Texas Tech lawyers.”
Different exams, challenges
By choosing to take the Texas Bar Exam online, Bohlen was able to avoid the added financial burden of an extended stay in New Mexico on top of all the other costs with studying for and taking the exam. But other challenges presented themselves.
To ensure the integrity of the test and those taking it, all test-takers for the online exam were recorded, both by video and audio, through their computers. According to Bohlen, that video and audio was then reviewed by artificial intelligence (AI) software that could flag suspicious activity by the test-taker that was then reviewed by humans.
“As an examinee, the AI proctoring was the biggest unknown factor of the online bar exam,” Bohlen said. “Test-takers had no way of knowing how sensitive the program would be. We worried the software would flag us for fidgeting, for looking away from our computer screens or for background noises out of our control. So, that added an extra layer of stress to an already stressful experience. Many people also had a more general concern that the exam software would fail. In the end, the software worked great for me. And I know the AI proctoring was the only way an online bar exam was feasible. So, though it was a stressful couple of days, I think it turned out to be a success story, given the circumstances.”
Taking the exam online also altered the way Bohlen prepared and studied for the exam. She said that, instead of reading and answering questions on paper, she did so on a computer screen in order to simulate the exam process as much as possible. She also did not allow herself to use scratch paper while practicing since that was not allowed during the online exam.
From there, her biggest concern was that the exam software would not work properly or that she was not being quiet and still enough to not be flagged by the AI. But after finishing the first of eight segments of the exam, most of her worries were relieved.
“I got into the swing of things and it just felt like taking any other exam, but longer and more difficult, of course,” Bohlen said.
For Egbunike, however, the stress was far beyond just the exam itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic not only altered how he went about preparing for the bar exam, but also how he was able to finish out law school. He said his mother helped support him financially while finishing law school, but the pandemic placed her in the category of the multitude of small business owners across the U.S. who had to shut down. Then, a month into studying for the New Mexico exam, the state implemented its quarantine requirement.
That meant two solid weeks indoors, unable to go out. The three-day hotel stay for test-takers turned into a temporary residency at a time when so many of the students could ill afford to do so. The seclusion did have an unintended benefit, however – with the inability to go anywhere, Egbunike had no choice but to spend two weeks studying.
“In light of the long road trip to New Mexico, the mandatory two-week quarantine, the uncertainty surrounding the actual exam, procedures in place to protect test-takers and the sheer cost, a few of us decided to take the Texas Bar Exam instead,” Egbunike said. “I personally spent days going back and forth over my decision, but I knew what I wanted for my career and I didn't want to start studying for a different exam halfway through, so I was determined to go forward with New Mexico.”
Egbunike also had the added challenge of pursuing his master's degree in engineering while going through law school. When he entered law school, he signed up for the Doctor of Jurisprudence/Master's of Business Administration (J.D./MBA) program intent on pursuing corporate law. But when he switched to intellectual property law, he discovered the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office requires all patent prosecutor applicants to possess a science degree.
Therefore, he decided to pursue an engineering degree in order to develop a background and knowledge of the technological terms he will be dealing with in reviewing patent applications. But having already completed several MBA classes, he didn't want to abandon that degree, either. So, after some wrangling, Egbunike was allowed to pursue all three degrees, and finished all three in 3.5 years.
“Opportunities like that are just another reason I'm so grateful I chose to come to Texas Tech,” Egbunike said.
Support from the school
When it comes to the bar exam and enhancing student success, the law school turns to two people – Catherine Christopher and Sofia Chapman.
Christopher is the associate dean for bar success and professor of law with a singular focus on helping students pass the bar exam. She recommends law graduates spend the 10 weeks between graduation and taking the bar exam studying full-time, during which they review everything they learned in three years of law school and practice specific question formats tested on the bar exam.
“It's all the stress of cramming for finals, but expanded over two-and-a-half-months,” Christopher said. “Texas Tech Law graduates work harder than any other group of alumni I've seen. They get a practical, useful education at the law school and they put it to good use, on the bar exam and after.”
Of course, this year's cache of bar-exam takers had to deal with much more than just ensuring they had the knowledge and tools to pass the exam. The pandemic placed much more pressure on them just from being able to financially afford to make it through the exam process, particularly those who took the New Mexico exam.
Chapman created a needs assessment questionnaire for all those taking the New Mexico bar exam, asking if they needed financial assistance with food, lodging and travel. She said a total of 50 of the 58 students who took the New Mexico exam sought assistance.
She also researched various housing options to best fit the needs of students, ultimately securing a block of hotel rooms at a Staybridge Suites in North Albuquerque for the entire quarantine and exam period. The hotel had separate bedroom and studying areas allowing students to separate their study space from their sleeping space.
“We felt this was vital from a wellness perspective in order to assist the students and separate their study area from their sleeping area in order get a good night's rest each evening,” Chapman said.
The hotel rooms had full kitchen capabilities to allow students to make their own meals, and the law school worked with the hotel to have a continental breakfast delivered to every student each morning. Students were provided gift cards, and many them to order delivered meals and groceries. All the costs were covered by the law school's foundation.
Students who did not want to stay in the law schools block of hotel rooms but made their own housing arrangements were also supported financially in the same manner. All students were provided meal-planning tips in order to help them get through the two-plus-week period.
“I can honestly say that I am incredibly proud of the class of 2020,” Chapman said. “The resilience and strength they demonstrated inspired me. I was very honored to work with the foundation and our students.”
Christopher said this is the largest group from the Texas Tech Law School that has taken the New Mexico exam, about half the 2020 graduating class, simply because the vast majority of graduates in the past wanted to take the Texas Bar Exam, then, if they desired to be licensed in New Mexico, would take that state's exam. But when Texas announced last year it would accept UBE results from other states, it opened the door for Texas law graduates.
In February, Texas began administering the UBE exam, and the financial burden of traveling to New Mexico for the exam has been eliminated for future graduates.
The success of the 2020 graduating class on the bar exam, whether the New Mexico or old Texas exam, shows not only the tremendous education Texas Tech Law School graduates receive but also the outstanding support provided, from the first year all the way through taking the bar.
“We always strive to have the highest bar passage rate we can, obviously,” Christopher said. “The 2020 successes are a little higher than usual, which is obviously exciting.
“Smart prospective law students are interested in lots of information about a law school, and its bar passage rate is one of the things they notice. An increased bar passage rate demonstrates to prospective students that Texas Tech Law prepares them for a successful career.”
Both Egbunike and Bohlen credited the work Christopher and Chapman put in with allowing them to successfully pass the bar exam, saying their willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty helped make their experiences as painless and rewarding as possible.
“In addition to being an absolutely brilliant professor, and one of the kindest, most compassionate people I've ever met, professor Christopher was on-hand throughout the bar prep process to answer our questions, give us tips and strategies and help us improve our practice scores,” Egbunike said. “On top of that, she held weekly Zoom meetings throughout bar prep just to check in and see how we were all holding up. During bar prep, she really became a therapist and a teacher rolled into one for us.
“Dr. Chapman was definitely working overtime to help us in any way she could, doing everything from helping students get laptops and access to WiFi, to obtaining essentials like extra food and counseling. The conversation surrounding mental health in the legal field has become more prominent in recent years, and people like Dr. Chapman are doing what they can to reach out to law students and make life a bit easier.”
Making an impact
Now that they both have passed the bar exam, Egbunike and Bohlen are pursing their law careers. While Egbunike seeks to practice intellectual property law, Bohlen is currently clerking with the Supreme Court of Texas.
“It's great,” Bohlen said of her experience so far. “We have worked remotely from the beginning of my clerkship. That has not really affected the substantive work that the clerks do – we can do essentially the same work on our laptops at home that we would do on our computers in chambers. But, of course, we all know that we are missing out on the aspects of the clerkship that cannot be replaced by Zoom calls, like getting to know the other clerks and justices through everyday interactions at the court. But, we are all trying to make the best of things, and everyone is trying to replicate the standard clerkship experience as near as possible. It has been an extremely positive experience.”
Having gone through the rigors of law school and the bar exam, both Egbunike and Bohlen advise those considering law school to be prepared to work hard, but said that in the end, it can be one of the most rewarding experience of your life. They credit the faculty and staff within the Texas Tech School of Law for making it that way.
“Texas Tech Law is a really special place with some amazing people, and if you happen to be applying to law school in Texas, I highly recommend giving Texas Tech Law a try,” Egbunike said. “You won't regret it.”