Professor instructing students

Getting Faculty On-Board with NextGen Bar Exam Preparation

By Susannah Pollvogt

In a previous post, I talked about the importance of gaining faculty buy-in for any effort to prepare students for the NextGen Bar Exam. But we know that faculty buy-in is elusive. An informal poll of associate deans during a recent webinar showed the following. Asked how enthusiastic their faculty members were about preparing for NextGen, less than 5% of respondents said that their faculty was “very enthusiastic.” Around 25% said that their faculty was “somewhat enthusiastic.” And a disheartening 45% reported that their faculty was “not enthusiastic at all.”

How Can These Numbers Be Shifted?

As alluded to in my prior post, the best way to create faculty buy-in is to assess current students using a NextGen-style assessment tool and to share the results with faculty. If it is revealed that students don’t possess the competencies tested by NextGen, it’s time to have a serious conversation about what can be done.

Mapping the curriculum against the competencies tested on NextGen can also be eye-opening and spur action. In addition, in my work with law schools, I have found that faculty engagement is all about finding the levers at your particular school based on your particular academic culture. But there are a few universal truths:

  1. As much critique as there has been of the U.S. News rankings, most faculty still care about them.
  2. Doctrinal faculty are generally not experienced or comfortable with skills instruction.
  3. All faculty members bear heavy teaching, scholarship, and service loads, such that the thought of majorly overhauling their syllabus, pedagogy, and/or approach to assessment is overwhelming.

With respect to point one, we know that the new U.S. News methodology now places a much greater emphasis on student outcomes, in particular employment and bar passage. First-time bar passage now counts for 18% of a school’s score and ultimate bar passage another 7%. It’s important to make sure that faculty are aware of how students’ performance on the bar exam will affect the law school’s ranking. Often those of us sitting in the dean’s suite forget that faculty are not privy to the same conversations we are and may be more focused on what they are teaching or writing than issues like the rankings formula.

With respect to point two, it is critical to communicate to faculty that they are not expected to magically transform into clinicians or skills faculty. Rather, a few discrete exercises sprinkled throughout the semester can go a long way. The focus needs to be on in-class exercises where students read primary sources and digest and apply them in real time. Further, simply changing the call of the question from “Who should prevail?” to “What would be your strongest argument as the attorney for the plaintiff?” pushes students to think about issues from a client perspective, thus achieving one of the main objectives of NextGen.

This is related to point three, which requires us to stress to faculty that pitching in to the NextGen preparedness effort does not need to be heavy lift. It does not, for example, have to radically increase grading responsibilities. There is virtue in students simply putting pen to paper (so to speak) to write an analysis even if they never receive a score. Feedback can be provided through peer evaluation, review of a sample answer, or a combination of both.

My experience as a consultant has taught me that only plans that are realistic and achievable have any chance of being implemented. I recommend that those in charge of NextGen preparedness at their schools start small and move forward incrementally.

Susannah Pollvogt

Principal Consultant for Academics and Curriculum, LEC
Susannah Pollvogt is the principal consultant for academics and curriculum for LSAC’s Legal Education Consulting (LEC) group.