Fewer than half of Charleston School of Law graduates passed the South Carolina bar exam in July.
The S.C. Supreme Court announced last week that 280 of the 410 people who took the state bar exam in July scored high enough to earn admission to the bar. The report showed a wide disparity between the state's two law schools.
About 44 percent of applicants from the private Charleston School of Law passed, compared to 76 percent from the older, public University of South Carolina School of Law in Columbia.
Since its founding in 2003, the Charleston School of Law often has trailed behind USC Law, but this year's results represent a precipitous drop. As recently as 2013, the Charleston school's South Carolina bar admission rate was more than 75 percent.
Charleston School of Law Dean Andy Abrams said the July results reflect a major change in the Palmetto State's bar exam. This is the first year South Carolina has administered the Uniform Bar Examination, a standardized test that is currently accepted in 26 states and Washington, D.C.
In addition to multiple-choice questions, the UBE includes a lengthy essay section and a section in which test-takers must draft motions for hypothetical cases.
"It's not a bad skill set to test; it's just very different from the way bar exams have been in the past," Abrams said.
The dropoff was not nearly so dramatic at USC School of Law, where the bar passage rate had hovered around 80 percent in previous years.
Different states have different standards for bar admissions, and even states that administer the UBE can choose different cutoff scores. Overall, a report from The Bar Examiner found that 58 percent of bar applicants passed nationwide in 2016. Nationwide statistics are not available for 2017 yet.
Abrams said the Charleston School of Law might be seeing the long-term effects of some high-performing students who transferred out after school leaders entered negotiations with the for-profit management group InfiLaw System in 2013. Decrying low bar passage rates and management disputes at InfiLaw's other schools in Charlotte, Phoenix and Jacksonville, Fla., some students openly protested the administration and left for other law schools.
The acrimony seems to have settled down since the law school broke off talks with InfiLaw in 2015. Georgetown attorney Ed Bell took the helm as president in October 2015 and announced plans to convert the for-profit school into a nonprofit organization. That process is still in the works, according to Abrams.
Abrams also pointed out that while this year's bar results look bleak, Charleston School of Law students tend to perform well in the long run. Law school grads may re-take the bar multiple times, and, according to Abrams, 90 percent of the school's graduates eventually have passed a state bar exam, either in South Carolina or another state.
Going forward, Abrams said Charleston School of Law is adjusting how it prepares students for the crucial exam. The school recently hired a new assistant dean for academic and bar success, Dyann Margolis, who previously worked for the test-prep organization BARBRI Group.
The bad news about the bar exam is also leavened by a little good news: The Princeton Review recently ranked Charleston School of Law No. 10 among law schools nationwide for Best Professors and No. 4 for Quality of Life.
"Admissions numbers and applications are up significantly," Abrams said. "Enrollments are pretty much back where they were before the ownership issues, applications are up significantly. Part of it is Charleston, and part of it is the law school itself."